Larissa Dann blog post May 2015Photo:Shutterstock
Children and discipline – a perennial issue. Discipline (the verb) can mean either ‘to teach’, or ‘to control’ (Gordon, T. 1989). If we use discipline to control children, then we rely on reward and punishment to change a child’s behaviour.
This article questions the use of one of the most commonly used discipline (punishment) techniques – time-out. Many schools, childcare centres and parents rely on time-out to discipline children.
What is time-out?
Time-out is when a child is excluded from being with others for a certain period of time, as a punishment for their behaviour. They may stay in the same room (say, the ‘naughty corner), or be moved to another room for a certain period of time.
The parent or carer controls when and where the child goes to time-out, and when the child is allowed to return to the class or family. The child is powerless.
The effects of time-out
Time-out and isolation, ostracism and self-concept
When a child is excluded from interacting with others (time-out), they are effectively ostracised (isolated from relationship) by those more powerful than them – parents and teachers.
Recent brain research suggests that isolating people from others important to them causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural paths in our brain as physical pain or illness (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. 2014). Is time-out really a gentle alternative to smacking, when the child has a similar physical experience of both punishments?
Ostracism studies in adult relationships found that excluding people threatens the needs of self-esteem, belonging, control and meaningful existence (Williams, K, 2007). If this is the effect on adults, how much greater is the impact of social isolation on children?
Excluding a child from family/class activity, while keeping the child in the same room (‘quiet time’), is perceived as a ‘softer’ punishment than banishment to another room. However, quiet time may in fact, be more harmful. A child essentially becomes ‘invisible’. Not being acknowledged, the public shame of exclusion, feeling as though you don’t exist . . .this is a potentially devastating experience for a child.
Time-out does not teach social and emotional life skills
“What’s done to children, they will do to society” (Karl A. Menninger). Remember – discipline means ‘to teach’. Time-out is a method of resolving conflict between a caregiver and a child. What do teachers or parents model when they use their power to isolate a child? How will a child put time-out into practice when playing with friends, or in future adult relationships?
Children subjected to time-out by their parents or teachers may, in turn, use their power to bully by excluding their peers or siblings.
Time-out does not seek to understand the reason for the behaviour
When we use time-out to punish a child for misbehaving, we forget to look for the unmet need that led to the behaviour. They may have been bullied at school, or they may simply be tired and hungry. Have we then lost an opportunity to understand and connect with our child?
Time-out and divorce, separation and trauma
Consider the potential effect of time-out on children whose parents have separated or are separating, who have been adopted or fostered, who have separation anxiety or are affected by trauma. Time-out with these children may exacerbate feelings of abandonment, rejection or confusion.
Children need connection, not isolation. They need to be held in a safe space (physically and emotionally), in relationship, to help heal the hurt.
Alternatives to time-out include:
- Replace the use of rewards and punishment with positive relationship skills, including no-lose conflict resolution. Courses such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) teach how to avoid rewards and punishment; to communicate respectfully with children; and help them build an inner discipline.
- ‘Time-in’ – being with and enjoying the company of children, giving them love and attention, remembering what you like about them, and letting them know. Delight in the little person who is in your care.
Gordon, T, 1989. Teaching Children Self Discipline: At Home and at School. 1st ed. America: Random House.
Daniel J Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. 2014. Time-outs Are Hurting Your Child. [ONLINE] Available at: http://time.com/3404701/discipline-time-out-is-not-good/. [Accessed 27 April 15].
Williams, Kipling (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology.
Larissa has taught P.E.T. for over 17 years, and utilised the P.E.T. skills and concepts as a parent for more than 20 years. Her website, www.parentskills.com.au, contains an extended version of this article, and reflects her passion for empowering children, parents and carers in a relationship of respect.