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Do Time-Outs Work? It’s Time to Reframe the Question

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Are time-outs an effective strategy for parents to cope with children’s challenging behaviors?

Before I studied early childhood development, I occasionally used time-outs with my own children because they were touted as an effective and appropriate discipline technique. Decades later, a debate is raging about whether or not this is true. A recent Time article tried to address that question, but the effort backfired, generating confusion rather than clarity among parents and professionals alike.

The story quoted one expert, UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel, who said that the “punishment and social isolation” of time-outs are harmful to children.  But in the same article, Rachel Knight, a University of Michigan psychologist, argued that extensive data shows children in families using time-outs are no more likely to experience “anxiety, depression, aggression, rule-breaking behaviors, or self-control problems” than those whose parents didn’t use time-outs.

I could quibble about the limits of research on human emotional development, but the real problem with the article was that missed the larger point by focusing on a simplistic question: are time-outs good or bad? Here’s a more relevant question: how should parents decide when and whether to use time-outs — or any strategy — for a particular child?

To answer that question, we need to start with another question: is the child deliberately misbehaving, or is the behavior a subconscious and autonomic response to stress? If the behavior is a stress response, the solution isn’t to punish or discipline the child at all. We don’t need to teach the child a lesson — and in any case, the child’s brain and body aren’t in a state to learn. Instead, we need to provide a soothing presence, a way to reduce the stress. When we punish a stress behavior, it’s like mopping up the sink instead of turning off the water.

These are some of the lessons of brain science, which distinguishes between different types of behaviors. Fight-or-flight” behaviors stem from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system; they are a child’s adaptive response to stress. Using punishments or consequences in response to such behaviors only inflicts additional stress on the child’s nervous system, worsening the behaviors rather than mitigating them.

When parents send a child into a time-out, they’re assuming that the child will learn a lesson. I call that a “top-down” bias, a judgment based on the mistaken assumption that a child is always in a brain state that is compatible with learning. Before we opt for any corrective measure, we need to determine whether the child is in a receptive state to learn. Human beings need to be functioning in a calm, alert state in order to learn how to modify their behaviors.

I came to recognize this common error in conceptualizing problematic behaviors over many years’ work as a consultant to parents, school districts and public agencies. Again and again, I observed children whose challenging behaviors were impervious to traditional solutions such as time-outs. Often, time-outs increased maladaptive behaviors — as well as children’s anxiety and depression. I observed this in many children, but especially those exposed to toxic stress or trauma, in which social isolation can trigger severe distress and hopelessness.

When we reframe many challenging behaviors as fight-or-flight behaviors —  caused by subconscious distress — it’s easy to see that when we increase threat through the social isolation of a time-out, we are ignoring the brain-body connection.  Our collective obsession about time-outs reflect an outdated perception that all behaviors are motivated and incentivized. They simply aren’t.

As for the question about whether or not time-outs work?  They may increase compliance, but we now know what I wish I knew as a young mom: that there are many more tools that are more beneficial and less risky.  With the dual benefits of neuroscience and compassion research, we can find better ways to guide our children, rather than taking away social engagement. Think about the last time someone you love ignored you as an adult. How did it feel? And did it solve your problem?

There are far more effective ways to teach children lessons than time-outs, and we should look towards those strategies as the new generation of positive parenting techniques that will benefit all of us. One alternative is a “time-in,” which I define as staying with a child and co-regulating (soothing) in a way that helps move the child from distress to a calm state. Each child will need patiently tailored and individualized interactions from caregivers to move to a calm state in which the child can begin to talk about what happened and discover ways to handle the situation better next time.

It’s time to shift our thinking about discipline and assume a compassionate approach based on current brain science. We can start by asking the right questions. When we do this, everyone benefits because we can strengthen relationships at the same time we are providing developmentally sensitive teaching to our precious children.

I share more about how we can understand and support children with behavioral challenges in my book, Beyond Behaviors.

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