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Time-Outs Affect The Developing Brain

Time-Outs Affect The Developing Brain

By Rebecca Eanes

You know the drill. Everyone from your pediatrician to Super Nanny told you how to administer a proper time-out to a misbehaving child. You were supposed to send them to a designated chair away from everyone else for one minute per age. No eye contact. No talking to them. And when the time was up, you were to tell them what they did wrong and what you expect. 

Nearly everyone used them at some point. Time-outs became a popular discipline technique after spanking was scientifically proven to be harmful. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet adequately researched the effects of separation-based discipline. Now that we have studied it, it is coming to light that time-outs are actually harmful as well.

In a piece for Time Magazine titled Time-Outs are Hurting Your Child, No-Drama Discipline authors Drs. Tina Bryson and Daniel Siegel assert that, even when presented in a patient and loving manner, children experience time-out as rejection, and because children have a profound need for connection with their parents or caregiver, this is particularly psychologically distressing. They go on to say that decades of research in attachment demonstrate that in times of distress, we need to be near and soothed by people who care for us. Time-outs force children to suffer alone while they deal with feelings of abandonment and rejection added to whatever emotion was driving their behavior in the first place. 

To further understand the trouble with this separation-based tactic, I turned to Neufeld Institute authorized facilitator Bridgett Miller. Miller has worked alongside and been mentored by Dr. Gordon Neufeld who is a developmental psychologist with more than 40 years of experience working with children and those who raise them. She is the author of What Young Children Need You to Know and is my trusted source when it comes to understanding child development. I asked Miller, “Why are separation-based techniques not ideal?” 

And this is what she had to say: 

“You’re so right. Time-outs have replaced spankings in many homes and reduced physical harm and that’s a big improvement. However, what many people don’t realize is that they can come at a cost to healthy emotional development.
When we understand that humans are wired for connection and when we don’t get the physical, emotional, or psychological closeness we need, we can’t help but feel unsafe. Separation-based techniques, like the popular time-out approach, use what children care most about against them. Knowing that a young child’s greatest need is to be physically close to their primary attachments, it makes sense that separating them from their parents may get some children to change their behavior, some of the time. When we repeatedly resort to sending young children away from us, we risk overworking their emotional systems and knocking out their desire to connect with us. When time-outs no longer seem to ‘work,’ it’s likely the child’s feelings have been shut down because it hurts too much to tolerate being separated from those they love. This is no accident; this is the brain’s attempt to protect the child from feeling the unbearable intensity of physical and emotional separation.
Time-outs can effectively manipulate the behavior of some young children. Those who are generally easygoing and adaptable may appear to learn their lessons after a time-out, but these same children would likely have changed their ways if they were calmly redirected without being sent away. Regrettably, young children who resist and push back against time-outs are the least likely to benefit from the experience, but the most likely to be the recipients of this approach. By taking away the physical closeness they require, we inadvertently push them away emotionally in the moments they most need to feel a secure heart connection.
The notion of sending a young child into what they experience as physical and emotional solitary confinement is not only disturbing, it’s illogical. Young children do not go off and think about the error of their ways, nor do they consider what they could do differently next time. Not because they intentionally refuse to, but because their immature brains are non-integrated and they are not yet capable of reflecting on their undesirable behavior, least of all when they are flooded by feelings of alarm because they have been sent away.
Knowing that a child’s greatest need is to be seen, heard, and valued by us, we can no longer in good conscience remove them from our presence under the guise of teaching them how to behave appropriately. Immature little beings cannot flourish in isolation and they cannot yet process their big emotions without our loving presence. They’re counting on us to be there for them, especially in the moments when we’re most tempted to send them away.”

So, what is the solution? 

Time-ins are a positive parenting tool that uses a connection-based approach. Rather than sending the child away, you invite them into your presence as you help calm, redirect, and teach. Generation Mindful's Time-In ToolKit helps parents and children create this space together and tools such as SnuggleBuddies plush toys and Heart's Treasure Hunt furthers the connection during both regulated and dyregulated moments.  

While some worry that this “time with a parent” is a “reward,” I would argue that it is only a reward if such time with a parent is rare. We mustn’t think of love and attention as rewards but rather as essential needs to be met. When the child has calmed down in the caregiver’s presence, they are then ready to talk about the effects of their behavior and how to better handle themselves in the future, because only a calm brain is receptive to lessons. As Drs. Bryson and Siegel share, “Reflection is created in relationship, not in isolation.”


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Time-In Toolkit in action

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