Wanting to know if time outs are effective?
If you are a parent you have likely heard of a time out where a child who is misbehaving, being naughty, having a tantrum or meltdown get’s sent away to their room or to a designated area in the house to have some ‘time out.’ Time outs were also made popular by Jo Frost also known as Supernanny so it’s understandable why parents think this is a good parenting technique when a so called expert made this approach popular on tv.
The thing is do time out’s actually work though?
Reframing meltdowns and tantrums
Before asking do time out’s actually work it’s important to first look at the behaviour that is making you question putting your child on a time out.
When a child is having a big emotional release there can be a number of reasons why:
- A lack of connection
- Think HAALT – they could be hungry, anxious, angry, lonely, tired
- Other unmet needs
- Unprocessed trauma
- They are going through a phase in development
Tantrums and meltdowns are often a way in which children are trying to communicate that something is up they just haven’t developed the executive functions to express with words yet.
Young children don’t yet have the ability to self regulate so they are dependant on a safe adult to help them work through their feelings.
When you begin to realise that there are big feelings going on underneath the outward behaviour you are witnessing in your child you can then start bringing in tools to meet their unmet needs whilst building a safe, secure connection with them.
I’m a big fan of the work of Mona Delahooke and you can read her articles on toddler tantrums here: https://monadelahooke.com/how-neuroscience-can-help-unravel-the-mystery-of-toddler-tantrums/
Small children don't deliberately push your buttons
I know it might not feel like it but small children don’t deliberately push your buttons (they aren’t quite that clever). Think about yourself when you’ve had your own adult version of a meltdown, this isn’t something you consciously choose to do and your feelings and behaviours are likely reactive and play out very unconsciously. It isn’t until afterwards when we self reflect that we realise why we behaved the way we did. Maybe you were hangry or exhausted after a long day at work? Or maybe you didn’t feel seen and heard so you had a ‘tantrum’ until you were seen and heard!
So whatever it is, the point I’m trying to make is children aren’t out to get you or masterminding behind your back how to make you absolutely lose the plot. They don’t choose to cry over the blue plate when they wanted the red nor do they have any control over their impulses when someone makes them feel threatened so they scream, hit, kick or bite!
A child's 'meltdown' could actually be a stress response
When a child’s system detects a threat they can have a stress response – think fight/flight/freeze/fawn.
Again, children don’t have any control over these responses as these responses are actually adaptations and protect them from perceived danger/threats.
A child who gets given sandwiches cut up into triangles when they wanted squares can have a big stress response as when they encounter something that they are not expecting it can feel catastrophic. This is what is called the ‘expectation gap.’
When we realise that a child’s behaviour could actually indicate they are having a stress response then our approach should be ‘how can we help them come back down to baseline and feel safe, seen, soothed and secure?’ instead of ‘how can I stop this behaviour immediately as it’s driving me insane?!?’
Educating yourself more around your child’s development can help you approach your child from a place of compassion when they are struggling with big feelings oppose to a place of judging, dismissing and ignoring your child.
So do time out's work?
Hopefully from reading this article you have realised that time out’s are not the best approach when responding to your child’s behaviour. Whilst timeouts and other forms of punishment may help in the short term, long term they can have a significant impact on a child’s attachment, development and mental health.
What can you do instead of putting your child on a time out?
- Educate yourself on brain development and have a look at whether your expectations are in line with where they are at in their development. For example; are you expecting your 2 year old to sit still, listen and share their toys but failing to realise that the part of the brain responsible for impulse control isn’t developed until much later in life?
- Learn how to hold space for your child’s feelings. When children have big feelings parents can have difficulties holding space for those feelings especially if no one responded to their feelings as a child. Parents who grew up with the authoritarian parenting style where children were to be seen and not heard can have a difficult time expressing their feelings so they may need one to one support with this.
- Encourage a time in. If parents can get to a place where they are able to self regulate and be inside their window of tolerance it’s recommended that they stay with their child when their child is in distress opposed to sending their child away. This isn’t always possible if a parent is dysregulated and it’s absoutely ok for the parent to take a time out if they are at their absolute limit.
- Slow down. Parents are so busy today that they are often doing things at one hundred miles per hour which leaves very little time for self care or good quality connection time with children. I highly recommend Mona Delahooke’s book ‘Brain Body Parenting’ where you can learn more about your body budget and things you can do to increase your wellbeing by adding deposits to your body budget.
- Get parenting support. Parenting isn’t easy and no one teaches you how to be a parent. Unfortunately for many parents they have very little education around brain science, communication, attachment styles and emotional intelligence. Working with a parent coach or therapist can help you work through your parenting struggles and gain more knowledge on how to best support your child.
Fiona Ng is a mother to two daughters age 5 and 7, based in Newcastle upon tyne. UK. Fiona is a conscious parenting coach, positive parent workshop facilitator and student of Somatic Experiencing.
Fiona supports parents with children in the early years (2-10) and is passionate about educating parents to understand the feelings behind their child’s outward behaviour. Fiona helps parents with their communication and connection with their children and helps parents develop greater awareness and emotional intelligence.