Is Time Out a Gentle Form of Discipline?

Time-outIt’s incredible how many parents I hear saying “I don’t punish my children – well except for Time outs of course!”

The “Time out” has somehow become an accepted and common form of discipline, and many parents believe it is a gentle and effective option. Most feel that it is not even in the same realm as physical punishment, especially as it is prescribed by so many so called “parenting experts” such as Supernanny.

But is it really the harmless option it is thought by so many to be?

Gorden Neufeld Ph.D, author of Hold On to Your Kids, has this to say on the subject:

“The withdrawal of closeness (or threatening its loss) is such an effective means of behavior control because it triggers the child’s worst fear – that of being abandoned. If contact and closeness were not important to the toddler or older child, separation from us would have very little impact.”

He goes on to say:

“In all cases, the child’s response will come from a state of anxiety, but how the child shows that will depend on his particular way of attaching. A child who is used to preserving contact with the parent by being “good” will desperately promise never to transgress again. His attempt to regain connection will be a stream of “I’m sorry’s.” The child whose way of staying close is through affectionate gestures and words will, when he feels his attachment threatened by the parent, become full of “I love you’s” – that will be her mode of restoring proximity. If physical contact is paramount, the child may become clingy for a few hours, not wanting to let you out of her sight. The point for parents to understand is that these manifestations do not represent genuine understanding or contrition, only the anxiety of the child trying to reestablish the relationship with the parent. It is naïve to think that by such methods we are teaching children a lesson or making them consider the error of their ways.”

So there you have it. It is easy to see why so many people think that Time outs are effective – after all, the response from the child is often drastic, and it may appear that they really have learned a lesson. But what is really going on is not learning, nor discipline, but simply fear on the child’s part.

When we see it from this point of view, there can be no question that Time out is indeed a harmful and harsh punishment, one that should be avoided at all costs for the sake of our children and maintaining our connected and loving relationship with them.

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For practical discipline solutions that prioritise the relationship and connection between parent and child, I recommend reading my book, Trust Me I’m a Toddler.

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4 thoughts on “Is Time Out a Gentle Form of Discipline?”

  1. I think that it is easy to fell comfortable with “time out” because often a change of scenery and a little space apart from an intense situation is just what we need to regain composure and focus. My kid is still too young for what I think of as a traditional time out, so I don’t have much personal experience upon which to reflect. Although I like the idea of giving him the opportunity to recalibrate in a way that does not cause him fear or shame, indeed that is the basis for how I handle his occasional fits of temper. I always stay close to him when he is upset though and usually he asks for breast milk once he is calmer, it’s the final soother.

  2. I have read your thoughts on time out in your books and, given your professional background I wondered if you’d encountered it as something used on Autistic children. I live opposite a specialist school and they will often shut a child outside in an enclosure (it’s basically a cage, isn’t it?) and leave them to rage and throw themselves against the fence. It turns my stomach – even though I grew up seeing it- and I’m only now realising that the school may not know best. Should I report it?

    1. Now that’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. I know they type of room you’re talking about and have seen them used in several situations. The fact is that teachers and childcare workers do have a right to safety, and as a consequence of their disability, many children wont have the capacity to be able to reign in their strong emotions. I have been in situations where a very angry, confused child has been physically aggressive and violent towards me, and for my own safety and the safety of the other children, have been left with no alternative but to separate them from the group and place them into a safe space.

      However, it was never a case of lock them in a room and walk away. Whenever possible I would go in with them and wait for them to calm down, and if appropriate for the child, talk with them about what happened, before returning to the group.

      When my own safety was in danger, we used a locked soft play room. I would stand at the window and watch the child throw and hit and let his emotions out in a safe space. And when I could see it was safe, I would open the door and sit down right beside it, talking with the child until I could safely move closer and reconnect with them.

      This is very different from time out though. There is no adult imposed time limit for the child to sit and think, alone and scared. They are in control. They know they can rage as much as they need to and as soon as they are ready, a friendly face will be waiting to come and talk kindly to them.

      Although it can look horrific from an outside perspective, it is important to remember that you are not seeing the full picture. It could be that fresh air and some time to let everything out without fear of harming anyone else is exactly what that child needs. However, if you are concerned that they are not being supported during this time and instead are being excluded, I would encourage you to visit the school and talk with the head about their behaviour management policies. From my experience, I would imagine they would be only to happy to explain their process and if they won’t, perhaps you’re right that they are doing something they shouldn’t. If that is the case, you should of course report them, but I very much hope you find what you see reassuring.

      1. Thank you very much for this, it certainly sets my mind at ease. It seems that they are doing everything you describe, except that the space is not soft – it is Tarmac and wire fencing.
        Thanks again.

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