The tank engine hit me hard in the side of the head. My husband and I looked at each other, stunned, and my 2-year-old let out a strange laugh we’d never heard before. What just happened to our son? He’d never intentionally hurt anyone before, and now he’s throwing toy trains at us?
“Go to your room!”
The demand shot from my mouth before I was able to even think about it. My shocked toddler dropped to the floor in tears, and I carried him into his room myself.
This was the first and last time I put either of my kids in a time-out.
As parents, we long to do what’s best for our children. But so many of us are stumbling around in the dark, trying to find our own path amid a barrage of parenting blogs, experts and societal expectations — and all this at a time when we’re seeing increasing levels of parental burnout as we try to take on superhero-like roles.
Child development expert Dr. Deborah MacNamara tells SheKnows that one reason parents lean on separation-based strategies such as time-outs is because “they’re shortcuts when you’re hurried or exhausted, and you don’t spend time looking at the emotional life of a child… we go for the tried-and-true without looking at the harmful effects — and a lot of these are invisible and show up later.”
Despite being doled out with the best of intentions, there is increasing evidence time-outs have the potential to enact lasting damage. According to Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA, time-outs can harm parent-child relationships, reduce a child’s ability to learn empathy and healthy problem-solving and can actually erode behavior in the long-run.
So, why do so many parents continue to use them? Why was banishment my first instinct after my son threw his toy at me?
“It’s simple to say [time-outs are] just about the quick fix,” MacNamara says. “I actually think the deeper answer is that parents… are afraid that if they don’t react in the moment, they’re not doing their job, and their child is not going to turn out OK. If you spoke to the heart of parents, this is the concern. But these are parents who care very deeply.”
The dilemma in writing this article is that there is no magic technique to replace the time-out. My husband and I did a lot of reading, looking for a "silver bullet" to help with our toddler’s increasingly aggressive outbursts.
What we found instead was just what sent me instinctively rushing into my son’s room after sending him there. Developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld tells SheKnows, “In order to find rest, [our children] cannot be working for our love… To keep us close, they must not think that they have to be good.”
Any response to unwanted behavior needs to honor the child’s inner world, to preserve our relationship with them and to support and guide them until maturity eventually takes over.
This doesn’t mean our only option is to hug our kids after they bite us, however.
Registered psychologist Lindsey Fiebig tells SheKnows that the "time-in" as a behavior strategy preserves our attachment with the child, which is “the cornerstone of parenting.” So instead of banishment, when a child’s behaviors flare up, sit with them — or near them if they need space. Talk them through their emotions. Support them through the waves. Debrief the incident afterward. “They’re learning about their big feelings. You need to emotionally be there for them — you’re their rock in that moment.”
Time-ins help me to remember some truths — the word “time,” to me, means I need to give my son my time and that he will learn in his time. The word “in” helps me remember that he wants to be in my arms, in a relationship with me.
Unless you are that family I see at restaurants whose children sit quietly and never lick the dessert display case, these three principles articulated by MacNamara might resonate with you when thinking about your child’s behaviors:
- Engage the attachment instincts. This means changing tack when behaviors emerge, even when we’re in a hurry. Getting ready for school and the kid is obstinately pulling each item of winter clothing off? As hard as it is, connect with them. Make it a game. Laugh and engage that relationship. Nine times out of 10 in my house, it’s faster than the power struggle that would have resulted from just pushing forward.
- Solicit good intentions. MacNamara also calls this “getting ahead of the problem.” Before an activity that might elicit some behaviors, ask the question, “Can I count on you?” Of course, MacNamara admits, although you’ve asked your preschooler not to throw rocks at the park, temptation can overtake any tiny person. But with this question, you are “dialing in” your expectations and creating a holding place until their executive functioning comes online, sometime between 5 to 7 years old.
- Help them find their tears. As parents, we still need to maintain our roles — we need to hold boundaries and lead confidently. Our children cannot wear bare feet in winter. They cannot jump on the dog. They must go to bed within a reasonable time frame. Sometimes, inviting connection and playfulness works. But sometimes, when our children come up against “the things they cannot change,” supporting them as they find their tears can be the most attachment-friendly, developmentally informed way through the strife.
There are no quick fixes. Our children’s brains are designed to develop slowly, and no technique will help them grow up any faster. Our job as parents is to allow our children to rest in our love, not to separate them from us when they need us most. These are the hard but beautiful truths of parenting that I learned in the five minutes between being hit by the train and rushing into my son’s room to hold him.