Toddler on a time out stool in corner

Bad Behaviour: Is it Time Up for Time-Out?

Time-outs. Do you use this behaviour tool with your children? Have you ever? Does it work? Perhaps you have a naughty step or a thinking chair, perhaps you have a calm-down corner or a comfort space; there may be a million ways to refer to time-out just as there are a million variations of how to actually do it – undeniably, it has become a common technique for managing difficult childhood behaviour. But, what if I told you that psychologists now believed that frequent time-outs were just as harmful to our children as spanking; would you still send your children to the naughty step then? And what should you do to instil discipline instead?


Each generation thinks they have the answer to disciplining children. For my parents, it was spanking. A smack from my mum hurt, but a smack from my dad left us really fearful. Now, I am the parent and I have to admit, I’m often left feeling pretty much clueless about discipline. I do remember in a earlier conversation with my parents, them being convinced that I would have used smacking to punish my children before their third birthdays. So far, I’ve managed to prove my parents wrong – thankfully. I don’t blame them for hitting me and my brothers as children – they were doing what they believed to be right and indeed what a whole generation believed to be right and for the ‘greater good’ at the time. But times have moved on and my personal view is that smacking isn’t right. So, what should we do instead?

Supernanny helped to turn us into a generation who believed that the way forward was time-out. A gentler form of punishment maybe, there was no need to use aggression. Instead remove the child to a sit in quiet isolation on a step/chair/spot in the corner for a short period of time, often equal in minutes to the child’s age. Give them some time to calm down, some time to reflect on the situation, some time without reward to encourage them to behave differently in future. And for some parents, this worked.

But then, so did spanking.

In an article posted on Time.com, Daniel J. Siegel explained that the technique has negative implications on a child’s developing brain. Neuroscientists now understand that repeated experiences can change the physical structure of the brain. So, in the case of time-out, repeatedly being left in isolation is unhealthy for a child’s developing psyche.

Small children are often overwhelmed by their emotions – I know I still am and I’m thirty-five! Their ability to manage complex feelings is a tall order for them – they simply haven’t developed all the skills for appropriate self-regulation yet. (I repeat – me neither!) Yet, during moments of childhood distress, often resulting in negative behaviours (rather than the other way round) instead of using our maturity to connect with our children, so many of us are overlooking their psychological needs, leaving them to fend for themselves in isolation. This, according to Daniel J. Siegel’s article, causes a sense of rejection, which brain imagery shows looks very similar to that caused by physical pain – such as when a child is spanked. Perhaps we can’t see a hand-print, but are we mentally wounding our children instead?

I should point out that I too fall into the group of parents who have used time-out. With Oscar, we have battled the terrible twos, survived most of the troublesome threes and as one kind friend pointed out to me, our next stop will be the frustrating fours! To say that his behaviour at times can be challenging is an understatement. Historically, his meltdowns wouldn’t blow over in a few minutes, distraction tactics wouldn’t cause him to forget the reason for his outrage and ignoring his behaviour seemed to make situations worse, not better. Yes, we tried time-out.

Upset toddler on boat

Recently, we tried it as part of a behaviour management technique called 1-2-3 Magic. (Google it). In essence, I agreed with the principles behind it: small children are not mini adults. Their brains aren’t fully developed and they aren’t able to rationalise or empathise in the way that we ought to be able to as grown-ups. In 1-2-3 Magic, parents remove the emotion that they might be bringing into the situation themselves. You simply start counting as soon as your child displays an unwanted behaviour and should you reach three, a time-out or similar consequence is actioned. I can understand how this technique would be effective for some families, but it didn’t work out in ours. My child got frustrated that I had stopped talking to him. In his eyes, I was ignoring him. When his angry words appeared to stop having any effect on me, he tried a different tactic: hitting. Oscar had never been a hitter – and I completely understood why he was doing this now – his words weren’t working, how else might he be able to get my attention? I modified time-out: we’d be in the same room together, I bought a bubble timer to help us focus and relax – none of it seemed to make any positive difference. Now I was the one in need of a new tactic.

But what?

Too often, parents are critiqued by family, friends, even complete strangers. This is unfair. Really, the only people qualified to critique our parenting skills are our own children. But since mine are of an age where they either babble or gabble constantly about dinosaurs, I’m going to have to hope for the best that they’re mostly happy about the parenting decisions we make. I’ll ask them for their thoughts in thirty years time – well, maybe I will, depending on what I predict their responses will be! I know those around me might murmur that sometimes my parenting style is more fluff than tough. My parents definitely think that I am, ‘too soft,’ but I would argue that they don’t see the full picture.

A decade in the classroom as a primary school teacher taught me lots. I learnt how creative and resourceful children can be. I saw how sensitive they were. I learnt to understand their thought patterns and how important it is to make them feel valued. You cannot command respect in the classroom if you show little respect for the children under your command. You have to model the behaviour you want from them. You have  to find a way to connect with each child on an individual level as well as the class as a whole.

Connection is key – and as his mother, I would suggest that I am the most strongly connected to Oscar than anyone. I understand his temperament, I know the little things that are massively important to him and I know that every time he pushes a boundary or has a meltdown, I have an opportunity to either help him grow or crush his spirit. Guess which option I am going to choose? Oscar is strong-willed, stubborn like both of his parents and all of his grandparents, and just like me, he likes to be in control. Obviously, a three year old can’t be in control all of the time: if Oscar had his way, we would eat bourbon biscuits for breakfast and watch ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ on repeat from noon until night! I do have to be the parent, I do have to teach him what is reasonable and what is unreasonable and I do have to say no – a lot.

But if a child like Oscar only ever gets told no, or is left in isolation after being told no, then his quirky little spirit – his confidence – it would eventually be crushed. I believe his character traits mark him out as a natural leader – but a leader with no self-confidence is like a camel without a hump: they’re going to struggle when life becomes arduous. So what does this mean discipline looks like for us right now? Do we still use time-out? Or have we reverted to smacking like my parents did?

Rightly or wrongly, I do sometimes let Oscar ‘negotiate’… and he’s very good at it. It’s become a joke that that if we should ever divorce I’m sending Oscar into the lawyer’s office to negotiate on my behalf! Many would probably slate me for this – ‘Who’s in control?’ they might say, ‘You, or the child?’ But the fuller picture might tell me that after a long day of following the rules at school, or after being stuck in the car for hours and not having had the opportunity to run around freely for a bit, a straight-out no might not be what Oscar needs to hear. As mums, we learn to pick our battles, right? Plus, I’ve noticed that when we show we’ve respected what he think he needs sometimes, he can be more respectful when we tell him what he needs – or doesn’t need on other occasions.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that we give in to his every whim, or that he now approves all of our suggestions. Meltdowns still happen. Whining still happens. Extreme and excessive childlike behaviour still happens. But when it does happen and he loses all sense of self regulation, very often I hear these eight little words:

“Mummy, I want a kiss and a cuddle.”

Connection.

And I’m not going to argue with that. I’m not going to be the mum who refused her son a kiss and a cuddle when he was in distress or feeling overwhelmed. Of course he’s going to ‘over-react’ – he’s three – his young brain is far from being fully developed yet. He’s expressing himself the best way he knows how. Even I – a fully fledged grown up – have to admit to exploding every now and again. No one shuts me in a corner – they usually reach out to try and help. So, how can we expect our children to express themselves and feel listened to if they are isolated and in time-out? What is that teaching them about their self-worth? How can you hug a child if they are alone? I figure I can’t be damaging the structure of their brains too much by embracing them and holding them close. But then, perhaps you’ll think I’m just being soft. How about you ask my children in thirty years time?


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