Let’s talk about “time-outs” . . .*

As mammals, attachment is our greatest need and our strongest drive, therefore, separation of any kind is what causes us the most distress.

Separation, even anticipated separation, triggers our primal emotions, which are: frustration, alarm and pursuit. When we withdraw our presence from our child when they are behaving in a way we don’t like– either by ignoring them, leaving the room or sending them out of the room– we trigger the emotions of separation.

People believe time-outs “work,” because, afterwards, children will act well-behaved and apologetic. We need to understand what has happened in order to see that this does not indicate anything other than the fact that we have pushed their emotional buttons and are now getting the resultant alarm and pursuit (spoiler alert: the frustration is in there and will come out at a later time).

Time-outs were first recommended by pediatricians in an attempt to provide highly frustrated parents with an alternative to hitting their kids. This is good. If you are going to hit your child, please put them (or better yet yourself) in a time-out instead!

But, if you are using time-outs as a way to teach your child a lesson, to transmit your values, to punish them for behaving poorly or to manage your own frustration, please know that the reason kids “misbehave” are, when you get right down to it, two-fold: 1) they are either too immature to carry out the expected behavior or 2) they are not attached deeply enough to us to want to do what we are asking. In both of these cases, it is only our relationship with them that can address these issues . . and time-outs only serve to weaken and decrease the security of the relationship.

In discussing the “sorrys” and “good behavior” that come in the aftermath of time-outs, Dr. Gordon Neufeld has this to say:

“The point for parents to understand is that these manifestations do not represent genuine understanding or contrition, only the anxiety of the child trying to reestablish the relationship with the parent…There is a high cost to playing the separation card: insecurity…Under such conditions the child experiences no release, no rest from the drive to attach, and, therefore, no freedom for the emergence of his individuality and independence. The child may become very “good,” but will also be devoid of attachment energy. **His development is sabotaged.**” (emphasis mine).

The roots of the word discipline mean: to guide, to teach and to impose order. Time-outs do none of these things; they are akin to animal training. But if they were only that, they would not be so dangerous. As Dr. Neufeld makes plain, the problem is that by damaging the parent-child relationship and triggering the primal emotions, time-outs come with a great cost to relationship and, therefore, to maturation.

If you are interested in ways other than time-outs (or praise, or rewards or “consequences” – all of which are behavioral techniques and, therefore, an insult to relationship) to teach, guide and discipline your child in ways that are attachment-safe and developmentally-friendly, I recommend Rest, Play, Grow by Dr. Deborah MacNamara and Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld.

*N.B.: Time-outs come in many guises– walking out of the room, telling your child you are not going to listen to them until they change their tone or language, pretending not to understand your child when they are whining, 1-2-3 Magic etc. If we didn’t euphemize them we’d call all of these things “shunning“.