Time up for time out

By Elizabeth Harrop

22 March 2010

Time Out has become the post-smacking disciplinary method of the 21st century, recommended by health care professionals, child care books, family and friends.

I have tried time-out with my trantruming 28 month old daughter, but had a niggling feeling that something about it just wasn’t right. Having now researched the subject further, I know why.   If my 2 year old is screaming and crying and I physically move her into the bedroom for her to take time out and calm down, what I am really doing is forcing her to give ME time out and space for ME to calm down. All parents need that, especially when moments like these are exacerbated by lack of sleep and background stresses.

But it would have far more integrity if I said “Mummy needs to take time out so I am going to sit in the bedroom for a few minutes, you can follow me when you are ready”. My 2 year old would then learn a useful strategy for how adults cope with stress and anger, which, when her brain has developed more, she will be able to employ herself.

With time out what she learns is “I am upset and can not control my emotions, my parent does not like that, so I am banished until I modify my behaviour”. No acceptance of difficult emotions, no team-work to try and regulate the child’s distress, no modeling of more desirable problem-solving behaviour.

As Margot Sunderland says in The Science of Parenting: “You wouldn’t walk away from your best friend or send her to a time-out room if she was writhing and sobbing on the floor, so this is certainly not appropriate for children, who have far fewer emotional resources than adults.”

The distress systems in a child’s brain are easily triggered and overwhelm infants because “there is so little higher rational brain functioning available” to help them think, reason, and calm down. Quite simply, the child needs our help to calm down.

And yes, through time out they will learn to suppress the tears and frustration, but that is not going to help them feel secure. Sunderland explains “Although the child may stop vocal crying, he may continue to cry internally – something that research shows is more worrisome. Silent, internal crying is a sign that the child has lost faith that help will come. In some people, this tragic loss of faith can stay for life.”

Judy Arnall, author of Discipline without Distress, comments “Many children do not respond well to being jailed. Evidence shows that timeout increases aggression, misunderstanding, anger, and retaliation and rarely builds the parent-child relationship. It doesn’t teach children conflict resolution, communication, or calm-down skills.”

On the other hand, remaining available to the distressed child is far more positive. Sunderland continues “It is deeply reassuring to a child to know that an adult can calm and understand the volcanic storms that rip through his body and brain. It is most disturbing to a child that when he is in terrible emotional pain his Mommy or Daddy gets angry or just walks away from him.”

Attachment Parenting International has some great advice for these intense interactions, saying that showing healthy responses to strong emotions teaches children that these emotions can be expressed and managed safely.

They suggest that phrases we use when talking to a difficult child can trigger our own issues. So a statement such as “Why is this always so hard?” may release anger that has nothing to do with our children, but with our own childhood legacy. Instead we can choose another way to see or describe the situation.

The physically moving of my daughter to the bedroom was also troublesome to me, because it was a form of touching her, against her will and without respect. Attachment Parenting International advises “Don’t act physically when angry. Spanking is not the only form of physical anger that parents sometimes use with their children. When angry, do not go to pick up or move your child. Physicalizing when angry only seems to unleash even more, perhaps buried, anger.”

A great tip for anyone still nursing their toddler: My 2 year old does not like being touched when she is having a full-on tantrum, but I discovered that just the sight of my ‘booby’ can calm her down when in distress and then when she is ready, a breastfeed totally settles her.

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Attachment Parenting International – Managing Your Own Anger, What to do When You Want to Have a Tantrum http://www.attachmentparenting.org/support/articles/artanger.php

Peaceful Parenting quoting The Science of Parenting: How today’s brain research can help you raise happy, emotionally balanced children by Margot Sunderland http://www.drmomma.org/2010/01/tackling-distress-tantrums-with-brain.html

Powerful Parenting why time out does not work http://www.powerfulparenting.com.au/pdf/%27Why%20Time-out%27%20Does%20Not%20Work.pdf

Why Timeout as a Punishment Doesn’t Work By Judy Arnall, author of Discipline without Distress www.professionalparenting.ca

Liberty & Humanity

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