For many parents, giving a time-out is a preferred method of dealing with a child’s undesirable behavior, and even seems to be a form of “gentle” discipline. You may have heard that an appropriate time-out is “one minute for each year of age.”
But is a time out really gentle? Is it effective? Does it help teach the child more acceptable behavior? Does it help develop intrinsic motivation?
“Discipline is . . . primarily a learning experience and less a punitive experience if appropriately dealt with,” said Maria Montessori. Discipline is not meant to punish, shame or penalize the child for making a wrong choice, but is meant to guide a child and to model appropriate behavior and positive ways of dealing with difficult situations. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin word discipulus, meaning “student”, which reminds us that the goal is for the child to learn how and desire to make appropriate choices.
What Happens in a Time-Out?
In a time out, negative behavior is observed, and the child is separated from the situation and put in isolation for a set amount of time. However, isolation is a punishment that a child often experiences as rejection of themselves, not just their behavior. Experts say that isolation, loneliness, abandonment, anxiety and angry outbursts are frequent responses to timeouts.
“Often, time-outs increased maladaptive behaviors—as well as children’s anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Mona Delahooke. She goes on to say, “When we frame 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 Our collective obsession about time-outs reflect an outdated perception that all behaviors are motivated and incentivized.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.” (Source.)
The goal of discipline is not to control or force compliance (the child does what I expect). It is cooperation (the child wants to work together towards a peaceful outcome).
A time-out may seem to bring about cooperation, but it is often only temporary. In a study done by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that children who were disciplined with timeouts misbehaved more frequently than those who weren’t.
So, what are alternatives to a time out? Whatever the approach, it’s important to understand that the goal of discipline is to strengthen the child/caregiver/parent relationship and helping the child develop emotional regulation, self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. One method that does just that is a “time-in”.
What Is a Time-In?
During a “time-in”, co-regulation is the goal. When a child exhibits negative behavior, the parent comes close to the child, gets down at eye-level, makes eye contact, and using a calm and gentle voice, lets the child know that they are there to help them through the situation. The parent stays with the child. Sometimes that means they withdraw from the situation together. A time-in conveys a message to your child that you are there to help them find a solution and that your love is unconditional (it is not based on their behavior or performance).
It’s important to understand that this looks different for each child and each situation. Your child may push you away or may refuse to talk. Or, they may want snuggles or a hug right away. Regardless of what your child needs, you are present, available and calm, signaling to your child that he is in a safe place to work through his emotions.
When the child is able to talk, the parent or caregiver might ask the child questions and listen attentively to their answers. They then might help the child come up with positive behaviors that can help them navigate such a situation in the future. There also might be some role play of those positive behaviors, and, when possible, returning to the situation to practice the positive behavior.
It’s important to understand that a time-in is NOT a compromise on your boundaries. A time-in is NOT buying the toy he asked for before the meltdown or giving them the candy they demanded you give them. It is not switching the tablet back on and allowing them to resume the show they were watching before you told them to turn it off. A time-in is the giving of your presence and the stability of consistent boundaries regardless of their behavior.
In addition to “time-ins” there are other positive alternatives to the time-out.
Another alternative to a time-out is a natural consequence. If your child is throwing their toy, it gets taken away and they are no longer able to use it. If your child is throwing their food on the floor, they will soon have no food left to eat. If your child uses the crayon to write on the wall instead of the paper, the crayon is taken away. These are natural consequences of negative behavior rather than “punishments”. It’s important that the parent not give natural consequences in a shaming, harsh, angry or punitive manner, but rather delivers them in a gentle and matter-of-fact way.
Repeated, consistent modeling by the child’s caregivers (it sometimes can take many weeks for a child to unlearn negative responses and using positive alternatives) is an important alternative to a time-out, because modeling helps circumvent the negative behavior that prompts the time-out.
If you snap at your child or scream at them when your emotions are heightened, you are not modeling emotional regulation. Instead, if you find yourself in a “fight-flight-freeze” response, take a deep breath, let your child know you need five minutes, and take a break. This is modeling a healthy way to navigate negative behavior to your child.
Modeling also involves acknowledging when you have displayed negative behavior and taking responsibility for it. “I’m sorry I _____, would you forgive me? Can I try again?”
Often, negative behavior is a result of the child experiencing a deficit in the connection department. He is seeking connection and attention from caregivers and parents, but cannot identify or express this need, and so he acts out in a negative manner.
Ensure that you are intentional about consistently connecting with your child outside of those times of negative behavior, so that he doesn’t have to resort to negative behavior to get the attention he needs. Take weekly one-on-one “dates” with your child (especially important in families with more than one child), spend 10-15 minutes every day engaging with your child by reading books, playing a game with them, or even playing with them at the park. Try to eat a meal together as a family, and ask your child questions about their day, about their interests, about their plans! Those minutes, added together, build connection.
Sometimes a child exhibits negative behavior not out of emotional dysregulation but out of boredom or restlessness. For example, if they throw a ball in the house, they may be in need of physical activity. A response might be, “I see that you feel like throwing a ball right now. We can’t throw this ball in the classroom because it might break something, but would like to try the hammer work or would you like to do the table scrubbing work?”
Meeting Physical Needs.
Sometimes a child exhibits negative behavior because their physical needs are not met. They may be tired, hungry, sick or overstimulated. In response to negative behavior, it is best for parents and caregivers to first ask themselves if the child’s physical needs are met. Meeting those needs is the first step in avoiding escalating negative behavior.
Consistently Noticing and Acknowledging Positive Behavior.
It is usually negative behavior that is acknowledged, if we’re honest. How consistent are we about noticing and acknowledging when our children are doing well? Make it a habit to acknowledge (not praise) positive behavior. Acknowledgement might sound like: “I noticed how you shared your toys with your brother. You both looked like you were having so much fun playing together.” Praise, which detracts from a child’s intrinsic motivation and brings the focus onto us and what makes us satisfieid, might sound like: “Good job for sharing your toys! I’m so proud of you!” Choose acknowledgement, not praise!
It’s also important to identify where your child is struggling and consistently practice and role play positive behavior outside of the context of the negative behavior. Meaning, don’t wait until your child is dysregulated. It could be before your bedtime story at night, taking a minute or two to say, “Do you remember what we do when ______(our friend takes a toy away from us)? Can you help me remember what you might say if that happens?”
We hope that these alternatives to time-outs help you in your parenting journey and ultimately help you strengthen your connection with your child.
“Our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good;
not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience.”
Dr. Maria Montessori