Positive Parenting: Time Outs May Not Be the Best Choice



By Susan Stiffelman

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed marriage and family therapist, educational consultant and parenting coach. Through her private practice, public presentations, workshops, teleclasses and website, she has become a source of advice and support for parents around the world. Her book, Cool, Calm and Connected: How to Avoid Negotiations, Arguments and Meltdowns With Your Kids is now available in bookstores. Susan can be reached at www.passionateparenting.net.

Do time-outs work as punishment for children? Family therapist and author Susan Stiffelman explains why they don’t work, why they can actually cause clinginess in your child — and what techniques are much more effective.

There’s no doubt about it: Time-outs work. Sort of. They work because unless a child has become hardened and aloof, the experience of being separated from a parent’s comforting presence is unpleasant at best and intolerable at worst. But they come at a price, and eventually they stop working –because they violate one of the three primary drives of a child’s brain: the need for close and secure attachment.

Children need a secure attachment

Children are wired to be closely connected to their caretakers. Attachment is vital to their survival and well-being. Unlike the young of other mammals, little humans are utterly dependent on their guardians to provide food, warmth, shelter and nurturing; we simply cannot survive without being connected to those who care for us.

When a misbehaving child is sent to their room to “think about” their offense, the only thing they’re really thinking about is either how soon they can get back to Mommy or Daddy or how much they hate their parent for sending them away.

The former response is what we initially see in a younger child whose experience of anxiety at being separated from the parent shoots through the roof. The latter response — anger and contempt — happens when the child feels outraged at being ostracized.

What role does discipline play in parenting?

Why time-outs don’t work

The problems with time-outs are numerous. First, at the very time when the angry or misbehaving child is out of control and in need of the calming influence of a caring parent, they’re left to settle down entirely on their own. Most children are incapable of doing this. They need a grown up to help them come back to themselves when they’re swept up in the storm of their emotions. A child whose behavior has been so impulsive or destructive as to warrant being sent away shouldn’t be left to his own devices to become centered again.
Sending a child away when they’re distressed is essentially saying to them, “I can’t handle you when you show this side of yourself. Come back when you can be the manageable Susie or Johnny that I can handle.” Not only are we telling the child that we only find the good, compliant version of themselves acceptable, we’re also declaring our inability to cope with all of who they are.

As I’ve said in many other articles, a child deeply needs their parent to function as the confident Captain of the ship in their life. When a parent sends a child away because they can’t handle their misbehavior, they’re effectively telling them that they (the child) have the power to render them (the parent) incompetent and helpless.

Time-outs increase separation anxiety

One of the characteristics I see in children whose parents routinely use time-outs is clinginess. Unless (or until) these kids become hardened and indifferent, they handle separation badly. While it usually works to tell a child who refuses to leave the park, “Okay, then, I’m leaving without you!” (most kids will indeed come running), the anxiety created by chronically threatening a child with separation damages their core sense of security and connection.

Time out for time outs?

What can you do?

When a parent functions as the Captain of the ship in their child’s life, there’s a natural dynamic at play that makes time-outs largely unnecessary. Sure, there are always times when our kids are cranky, hungry, jealous or running on empty, but if we do our best to anticipate problems before they manifest, we can usually avoid behavior getting out of hand.

For all practical purposes, time-outs are the equivalent of shunning a child. In most societies, shunning is considered the most dreadful form of punishment. When we instead manage a child’s misbehavior while preserving their sense of connection with us, we avoid the harmful effects of time-outs — which in the long run, create more problems than they solve.

How can you become the Captain of the ship in your child’s life, parenting without needing to bribe, threaten or resort to time-outs? Click here to read, “Avoiding power struggles: Parenting without bribes or threats.”

More on discipline

Spare the Rod: Study Ties Corporal Punishment to Mental Illness

I found this article on corporal punishment (spanking, hitting, etc.) to be very thought provoking. It is very interesting research and is published in an esteemed journal. I would like to read the original research to see how they are defining corporal punishment exactly and for what crimes it is being administered and with what frequency the children are being punished. They state that the occasional spanking was not included but that if a person answered “sometimes” they were included. How often is “sometimes?” Once a week? Once a month? Frequency must be a contributing factor as this article suggests based on the study’s methods.

Interestingly, I just read this article last week and am now reading how Texas would like to legalize corporate punishment in the school system. Perhaps they didn’t get to read this piece yet.

Spare the rod: Study ties corporal punishment to mental illness

http://daily.decisionhealth.com/Articles/Detail.aspx?id=513019 (Accessed July 8, 2012)

July 3, 2012 by: Roy Edroso

Researchers say this is the first study to show the psychological result of physical punishment in the absence of abuse or heightened family dysfunction.

The study appearing in Pediatrics finds that “harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders after adjusting for sociodemographic variables and family history of dysfunction…”

In other words, no matter what other strikes are already against kids in life, beating them only makes things worse.

Respondents were asked, “As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?” Those who answered “sometimes” or more often were considered. (The mere occasional spanking didn’t qualify subjects.)

Those who endured more severe treatment, e.g. sexual abuse, were excluded; adjustments were made for those whose home life had a heightened dysfunction (e.g., parent on drugs or in prison).

“To our knowledge,” say the authors, “there have been no examinations of the link between physical punishment and a broad range of mental health disorders in a nationally representative sample controlling for several types of child maltreatment” prior to theirs.

By this standard, about 6% of subjects qualified as physically punished without complicating factors — much lower than the presumed range in the general population, probably because of the strict exclusions.

Corporal punishment didn’t seem to factor into Axis II psychological disorders in adulthood. For example, while subjects from a dysfunctional family who experienced harsh physical punishment showed a tendency toward schizoid and obsessive-compulsive personality as adults, those who were not from such families showed no such tendency.

But for Axis I disorders, such as “major depression, dysthymia, mania, any mood disorder, specific phobia, any anxiety disorder, and any alcohol and drug abuse or dependence disorders,” the physically punished showed higher rates than those who received lighter punishments.

“From a public health perspective,” the authors conclude, “reducing physical punishment may help to decrease the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.”