Got a "time-out" chair in your home? You might want to put it back in the playroom. While time-outs were the discipline method du jour for parents in the '90s, they've fallen out of favor with today's more progressive child behavior experts. "Time-outs were originally a way for kids to take a break, think about what they did, maybe even have remorse for it, and settle down and return," says Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D, author of How Toddlers Thrive. "They don't make sense at all for young children."
The two biggest reasons to skip time-outs? They're not healthy for your child's emotional well-being (now or later), and they're not effective in terms of curbing "bad" behavior. (If you're constantly giving your child a time-out, that tells you something, doesn't it?)
Let's take a closer look at this form of discipline.
When toddlers "act out," there's generally a reason for it. They're trying to express something, even if it's in a way you don't like. "It's usually emotional or a call for attention," explains Klein. "They lack impulse control, so they act on their feelings with their bodies, mouths, and actions. To a child who is already upset or acting out, the time-out makes them even more mad and less understood. It says to the child that they are bad for what they are feeling or needing."
A time-out will make your child feel "unloved" at a crucial moment. Time-outs are a "power play by the parent to take control of the negative behavior, and that makes the child feel bad, shameful, and causes them to worry that the parent does not love them at the crucial time when they are building the trust that the parent is there for them in good moments and bad." When your child needs you most, he'll wind up feeling misunderstood and like you don't want to be around them unless they are anything but happy and well-behaved. If time-outs are used regularly, your child may stop talking with you about their feelings altogether, certain that you won't listen. (A lesson they will take well into the teen years!)
Time-outs have negative long-term effects on your child's emotional well-being. Some experts believe that time-outs enforce the message that one should bottle up uncomfortable emotions, which, in turn, causes children to repress their painful feelings down the road. Time-outs can also thwart parents' efforts to create children who are equipped to take responsibility for their actions. "That can't happen if they learn their emotions are seen as bad," says Klein. "Instead, children need help knowing that they have good and bad feelings; that sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't." Also, if a parent uses control methods, the child doesn't learn how to regulate themselves and handle their own emotions in the long run. "They learn to avoid punishment or to increase their behavior to get more attention," adds Klein. "But they do not get practice in learning to understand their feelings and handle them, a process which takes time and lots of practice with adult help."
Time-outs won't address the real problem. Parents typically use time-outs when their toddler is "out of control" and needs to calm down. But banishing a child to the corner to regain control of their emotions hardly ever works. “Toddlers are just figuring out who they are and what their emotions are about,” notes Klein. "They are far from being able to handle these emotions on their own and count on adults to help them." If you're thinking time-outs are "working" for your child, think again. While your child may stop misbehaving in front of you, the problem isn't really solved. Siblings may stop fighting in front of Mom and Dad, but a time-out won't make them get along. Similarly, your kids might behave like angels in front of you but "misbehave" behind your back. The behavior will continue; the kids just try to avoid getting "caught."
There are healthier forms of discipline that will serve your child's emotional needs now -- and make them emotionally intelligent later. Children, of course, need to learn there are consequences for inappropriate behavior, but these consequences should be explained, understood, and never done out of anger or rage. "When a ‘bad’ behavior occurs, address the feeling underlying it by naming it, and giving the child another way to express it," suggests Klein. "Putting words to feelings is part of how children learn to regulate or handle them." For instance, say, "I know you're angry that we can't do that now, but I won’t let you hit me. Here is a pillow to hit." By meeting the behavior and letting your kid convey it in a more acceptable way, "the child does not have to worry that they have lost their parent's love and approval," says Klein. Zak Zarbock, M.D., pediatrician and founder of Zarbee's Naturals, recommends you practice "positive parenting" techniques with your kids. "Positive parenting is something that takes a conscientious effort and builds over time," says Dr. Zarbock. It involves building a relationship of love and trust with your child and letting him know that feelings like anger, frustration, and sadness are normal and okay. (How would you like to be put in a time-out whenever you argued with someone?) The bottom line is to teach kids how to express their emotions in a healthy way that works for everyone rather than suppressing them. After all, loving our kids and raising them in the most positive way we can is what it's all about.
How do you manage your child's inappropriate behavior?
Image via Randy Faris/Corbis