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.
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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 an adult 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, "OK, 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.
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.
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