Making Time-Out “In” Again?
I have noticed a recent movement villainizing standard discipline practices, like using time-outs and consequences for problem behaviors. The opponents describe these techniques as punitive, ineffective, and harmful. I’m here to bring balance and common-sense to the discipline debate, before we abandon the good parts of discipline in irrational fear we are emotionally harming our children.
Root of Discipline: Behaviorism
Most current discipline practices are rooted in classic behaviorism theories: a behavior is reinforced by reward, and decreased by punishment. If we like a child’s behavior (eg, actually listening to us the first time we ask them to do something), we should give praise to motivate them to do it more. If we want our child’s hitting behavior to stop, something should happen they don’t like right after they hit so they don’t hit next time.
I have met psychologists who are pure behaviorists and believe every single human behavior can be shaped by what happens after the behavior, but if it were that simple, child discipline would not need thousands of books and articles explaining it. Most of us in the child psychology world acknowledge that there are many, many factors affecting behaviors (like temperament). The super nutshell version: human behavior is complicated; child behavior is extra complicated.
Even if child behavior is affected by many influences, though, I argue that it doesn’t mean there’s no place for behaviorism in discipline.
Time-Outs: In or Out?
As a psychologist before becoming a parent, I recommended classic “how to use time-out” books for parents. Almost a decade ago when I faced my initiation to toddler behaviors with my own child, I became aware of murmurings that time-out is ineffective at best, and damaging at worst. I was confused, so we took a moderate approach. We called it “taking time” and when my daughter entered tantrum mode, we moved her away from us for time to calm down.
Critics would say we did not provide her emotional support and made her feel worse by separating her from us. But the thing is – and THIS is the most important part – it worked. Not only did she calm down sooner when we weren’t engaging with her, she started to ASK to “take time” when she needed it. To this day, she will seek out being alone when feeling overwhelmed.
Fast forward to child #3. He becomes the most upset at the fastest speed of them all, and he flat out refuses to be separated – running right back to us. Emotionally, this kid clearly needs our help. I do separate him from whatever he was doing when he escalates screaming/throwing/etc., but I go with him and physically keep him next to me until he settles down. So we don’t use time-outs for him because they just don’t work; but we DO work on giving him tools to calm himself down, which is exactly what our pseudo-time-outs did accomplish for our oldest. (I honestly can’t remember our middle child needing time-outs – clearly the magic of temperament, and not our parenting.)
One recent Washington Post article encouraging total abandonment of time-out quoted experts speaking to the nature of humans to be connected and social rather than isolated, and that separating children in times of distress increases anxiety and emotional problems. The article claims time-outs simply don’t work.
Again, parenting and children are more complex and nuanced than these broad conclusions. Yes, social isolation in the form of, let’s say, solitary confinement is extremely damaging; I argue a 2-minute time-out in a loving, close parent-child relationship is not. The take-home point? If you like the idea of using time-outs, try it and see how it goes, possibly tailoring and tweaking the process as you see what works and what doesn’t. See the “DOs” of Discipline below for more guidance.
Mainstream parenting resources continue to promote using consequences as a part of effective parenting, but I have seen glimpses of warnings about the use of consequences as harsh and ignoring a child’s emotional needs. I strongly believe this swings the pendulum TOO far from a balanced approach to empathy and structure when we discipline our kids.
Frankly, I do not understand the opposition to giving children consequences. It’s not mean, it’s behaviorism at its best, and allows our growing children to learn about making choices. Of course the consequence should fit the behavior so it doesn’t become overly punitive, which does make it harder for the child to learn. But if you throw a toy, you don’t get to play with it. If you didn’t finish homework, you don’t get to use the iPad (more complicated when homework is ON the iPad!).
I have read the criticism that doling out consequences results in a constant ante-ing up of harsher and harsher consequences that become less and less effective, and that giving consequences means the opposite of being connected. I fundamentally disagree with both arguments: it’s all about the RIGHT consequences, and we can give consequences while being connected. It’s not either/or.
The “DOs” of Discipline
Our job as parents is to help our kids learn how to behave in the world, and how to manage strong emotions. Kids need limits and structure to feel safe, and to eventually learn how to limit and structure themselves since we won’t always be there. Instead of reading about everything NOT to do, here’s a common-sense guide for how to approach discipline.
DO prioritize consistency first. If you and your partner/co-parent person have opposite approaches, do your best to get on the same page before attempting effective discipline. Consistency is one of discipline’s magic ingredients. Give each other a time-out to talk it out away from your child if needed!
DO keep your eye on the prize: the problem behaviors. If you are using a strategy like time-out, ask yourself if it’s actually working. This can be tricky because we have to use any strategy pretty consistently to give it a fair shot, and kids can escalate a bad behavior especially if there’s a new strategy, so you do have to give it some time. But if a few weeks go by and the behavior has not improved, it’s time to try something different. If the behavior has improved, you’ve probably already forgotten about it and are focused on the next one. But hopefully you have built up some confidence and understanding of how your kid ticks.
DO pay attention to you and your child. If a response doesn’t feel right to you, like when my son comes running from his “take a break” place in even more distress, then don’t do it. If your child seems to be MORE anxious or MORE aggressive or MORE whatever over time, then think through another way to respond.
DO be flexible. There is no one-size-fits-all discipline. It’s all about finding the right fit for your specific child, which can take an exhausting amount of trial and error. A friend of mine even shared how her TWIN sons needed different responses. Also, what works in one developmental stage may suddenly be useless at an older stage, so parenting takes a lot of pivoting. If you are raising a child with a high level of anxiety, or neurological wiring for more impulsive or aggressive behaviors, it’s going to take even more time and patience, and maybe some professional support to figure out. It’s like finding the exact right jigsaw puzzle piece for a puzzle that keeps shifting shapes and colors.
Any of my relatives who spent Thanksgiving with us and are reading this may question if I should really be speaking as an authority on discipline. Because it is messy and things like holidays, traveling, and being out of routine, usually disrupt and temporarily derail any success. Cue 4-year-old tantrum in the middle of a museum gallery.
So my final piece of advice is to trust yourself in the noise of too many pieces of advice out there. Only you know the inner workings of your child and your discipline journey, so take the outsider’s possibly judgmental perspective with a grain of salt, and focus on your own family’s successes to fuel your confidence.
What is success anyways? For me, success is finding that balance between tuning into the emotional needs hiding inside acting out behaviors, and setting limits on the actual behaviors. Success is my kids knowing what is expected from them because we are consistent (enough) in our expectations. Success is my 4-year-old’s tantrum in the museum being short-lived and free of aggression.
The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, Ross W. Greene, PhD
Truths About Consequences, The Center for Parenting Education