The Case Against Time-Out

‘Time out’ to correct misbehavior may aggravate it instead

For generations, parents have sought a reliable and dependable way to handle childhood misbehavior. One of the most recent techniques is time-out. Although time-out is better than spanking, it is not an appropriate way to deal with misbehavior, as it may create subsequent childhood behavior problems that can affect a child’s well-being and severely strain the parent-child relationship.

Behaviors are symptoms

Children’s behaviors are determined, for the most part, by how children feel about the current state of their physical and psychosocial needs. Children will soon feel these needs strongly, and are, by nature, quite sensitive to them. If one or more of their needs are not met, children will soon feel uncomfortable.

When children feel uncomfortable, they cry. Infants’ and toddlers’ cries announce their feelings of frustration. These cries have evolved as a survival mechanism. They attract parental attention. The purpose of a cry is to obtain the kind and quality of parental love and care that will properly attend to unmet needs and, therefore, establish feelings of security in the child. Older child and adolescent misbehavior serves the same purpose as the baby’s cry — it announces that needs are frustrated.

Cries and misbehavior from children and adolescents are, in a way, very much like a sore throat, stuffed-up nose, aching muscles or a fever. All are symptoms. All have causes. A medical practitioner knows that when the virus or bacteria that is causing physical symptoms is eliminated, the noxious feelings will be quelled. Similarly, when parents correctly diagnose and provide remedies that address the needs of children and adolescents, the symptoms of crying or misbehavior will also disappear.

Unmet needs can be uncomfortable at any age, but it is more so for children due to their dependent nature. Young children lack the ability to meet their own needs, and until a certain age, are physically unable to do most self-care tasks. Their often intense outbursts stem from this frustrating dependency, coupled with their inability to tolerate frustration well. In addition, infants, toddlers and many preschool-aged children are unable to identify the frustrated needs that are making them upset. This makes it impossible to tell their parents what is bothering them.

Time-out increases frustration

When time-out is used, parents first firmly demand that their child stop misbehaving and be quiet. The child is usually required to go and sit alone in a room, away from parents, and is admonished not to come out of the room until he is sure he can control his behavior. Being placed in time-out prolongs the time that a child must endure the frustrated need that caused the misbehavior. Thus, unmet normal needs become increasingly uncomfortable as the time-out continues.

The fact that the child must be alone and away from the parents he or she depends upon, wants to be with, loves and relies on, exacerbates this increasingly uncomfortable state of being frustrated. Moreover, being alone in time-out can create additional disturbing feelings that the child must endure, such as fear and worry.

A frustrated child who must sit quietly and alone in time-out frequently becomes angry. Although they dare not express this anger when in time-out, children often express it by becoming angry and defiant sometime after being released from time-out.

Frequent time-out has lifelong effects

For the frustrated and uncomfortable child, time-out offers enforced silence and the feeling of being rejected by one’s parents. A youngster who misbehaves and then is given time-out feels hurt, which, combined with the frustration that caused the youngster to misbehave, gives birth to anger. Discipline practices that create hurt and anger can harm a child.

Time-out sends the message that one should bottle up uncomfortable emotions. Children desperately need to stop the painful feelings going on inside them when they are upset in time-out and unable to express these feelings. To cope, they learn to ignore and/or distract themselves from the energy of their hurt and angry feelings, and thus, they learn to repress them. In the process, nervous habits emerge, such as thumb sucking, fingernail biting, hair pulling, skin scratching, tugging at clothes, self-pinching and many other similar behaviors. These behaviors serve to ward off uncomfortable feelings and, in identification with their parents’ criticism, to punish themselves. Such defense strategies also serve to release anger and ignore uncomfortable feelings.

As a result, being unaware of true feelings often can become a characteristic feature of a person’s life. This reduces a person’s self-awareness and can affect the quality of life forever.

Developing the well-behaved child

Interpersonal dilemmas and conflicts are best resolved when each individual has sufficient opportunity to talk to and be heard by the other person. Modeling, initiating and practicing the process of open dialogue is essential if a youngster is to learn healthy problem-solving. Helping children talk about how they feel, combined with parental patience, is required if children are to develop the ability to verbalize their feelings and needs rather than act them out.

Parents can develop a well-behaved, self-disciplined child best by responsively and continuously meeting their child’s developmentally normal needs and drives; by demonstrating and articulating humane values in day-to-day interactions with their youngster; and by exposing their child to life experiences that strengthen and reinforce these values. Parents who do not meet their child’s normal needs and drives consistently and appropriately create troubled and spoiled children.

When children are physically healthy, well-nourished, satisfactorily exercised and not tired, their basic normal physical needs are being met. Their social and emotional needs are fulfilled when they receive sufficient and continuous satisfying attention, affection and recognition from parents and other adults and children to whom the child is emotionally attached. If a child’s normal curiosity, exploratory nature and intrinsic interests are regularly allowed opportunities to unfold and develop, the intellectual needs of that child will be satisfied. When young children are given opportunities, within a securely supportive and trustworthy environment, to become increasingly more independent, make choices and meaningfully participate in decision-making, their normal need to exercise some control over their life and to express their own will are being appropriately addressed.

It’s very important for parents and parents-to-be to learn the developmentally normal characteristics of each stage of early human development. It’s also important to recognize a virulent myth that still exists in our society: that fully meeting a child’s needs will spoil the child. The research literature clearly says that the opposite is true. The well-disciplined child is created when parents appropriately fulfill the needs of childhood and adolescence.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Peter Ernest Haiman and Manissus Press.