When your child misbehaves, how do you respond?
For many generations, misbehavior has been met with punishments such as spankings, and later evolved to the use of time-outs. But are punishment and time-outs the best parenting practices?
The simple answer is no.
Today, many parenting experts agree on the adverse effects of corporal punishment when trying to modify children’s behavior. Studies show that these practices negatively affect a child’s developing brain, decreasing the gray matter and connective tissue between brain cells, which influences a child’s ability to learn and affects social and emotional development.
As these findings came to light, behaviorists and psychoanalysts began studying wildlife and noticed the removal of attention in order to modify behavior. This forced isolation, or removal of nurturing connection, was then taught to parents in order to reform the behavior of their child as an alternative to violent techniques such as spanking. And thus the “time-out” was born.
Why Not Time-Outs?
On the surface, time-outs look like an effective, non-violent way to modify misbehavior, but any child who has been asked to face the corner, sit on the steps, or has been isolated to their room in the midst of their big emotions will tell you that time-outs are another form of punishment.
Research has shown that time-outs have many unfavorable effects on a child’s developing brain and emotional skills. According to the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, social exclusion causes increased blood flow to the same areas of the brain that light up when physical pain (such as spanking) is experienced. This shows us that emotional pain is just as real and significant to the brain as physical pain.
When we punish a child, we trigger the release of more stress hormones in their brains rather than the hormones of common connection that are required to help them learn new social and emotional skills.
In addition, research indicates that time-outs don’t necessarily improve behavior. While a child may cooperate in the short-term, they are unlikely to in the long-term. Studies have shown that many children respond to this “love withdrawal” by misbehaving more and having a more challenging time regulating their big emotional states … which to parents looks like more outbursts, whining, and power struggles.
This is not surprising as children need to feel safe and connected to access the higher learning parts of their brains. According to Dr. Siegel, timeouts isolate kids and show them that when they inevitably make a mistake, they will be forced to be alone. Young children tend to experience this as rejection, and this is damaging because children have a deep need for connection.
So while it is true that time-outs are a step ahead of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, they are ineffective in creating well-behaved, socially, and emotionally aware children. Here is why:
- Time-outs fail to teach emotional regulation.
Children often experience intense emotions and don’t yet have the capacity to deal with them, which can result in uncooperative behavior. This happens as their primitive brain stem hijacks their not-yet-developed prefrontal cortex, and we see behaviors of fight (hitting, kicking, spitting), flight (run away), or freeze (shut down, do nothing). Rather than viewing children as giving you a hard time, it helps to notice that they are actually having a hard time regulating their bodies.
When children experience big and sometimes unpleasant emotions and are sent away for not knowing what to do with them, it decreases a child’s capacity to develop effective coping skills and deters the child’s ability to regulate emotions and handle situations in the future. When this happens, mistakes and emotions feel unsafe, which can lead to more emotional outbursts, repression of emotions, increased lying, or sneaking.
- Time-outs work through fear and disconnection.
Misbehavior is communication of an unmet need and is often a request for help and connection. Sending a child to a time-out when they are dysregulated often ignores the reasons that underlie the child’s behavior, and can fuel their anger and hurt, creating a dissonance between the parent and child.
- Time-outs teach that when you do bad, you are bad.
What To Do Instead Of Time-Outs
So if this is not best practice, then the question becomes, how are parents supposed to set boundaries and teach life lessons to their toddlers and beyond, when the part of the brain that is responsible for skills such as self-awareness, empathy, impulse control, and problem-solving is not yet fully developed and can be easily be hijacked by the reactive part of the brain?
This is where a time-in comes in.
Time-ins are a way to help children learn how to notice and process their emotions in a safe space (or “Calming Corner”) and offer learning moments to practice skills of self-awareness, empathy, and problem-solving.
Additionally, time-ins let children know that when misbehavior rears its inevitable head, they will be loved and supported as they practice new skills of noticing their feelings, choosing a calming strategy, and reflecting on what happened and how others may feel.
When children feel supported and connected, they begin to view mistakes as safe. Misbehavior then becomes a learning opportunity and time-ins become a place to practice those skills. As children learn to regulate with guidance, they will eventually build their brains so they can exercise these skills on their own.
How To Use A Time-In
By taking a time-in, children strengthen their ability to notice feeling sensations in their bodies, name their emotions, and regulate their actions by intentionally choosing an activity to help them calm their bodies. All of this happens alongside a heavy dose of connection and play.
- Create a calming corner together.
- Choose your space with your child.
- Hang your posters.
- Select your tools and decorate the space.
- Introduce the tools during non-heated moments and create playful rituals.
For two weeks before attempting to use the space during heated moments, spend 5-10 minutes each day playing games in the space, reading books, snuggling, and taking time to learn about the different emotions in a playful way. As your child feels motivated to visit the space during non-heated moments, they will feel safer and more confident in using the space when they are having trouble regulating their bodies.
- Use and model the tools yourself.
When you are feeling dysregulated, show your children that the Calming Corner is for all ages. Go to the space, point to your emotion on the poster, and choose a calming strategy, just as we ask our kiddos to do. Our children learn by watching what we do so reinforce the behavior you desire by doing it yourself!
- Be in the moment with your kids.
In the midst of a tantrum, invite your child to the space, or perhaps they choose to go there themselves. Help them notice how they feel about what happened and follow their lead as they choose a calming strategy. Once regulated, ask questions to help them understand how the other person involved may feel about what happened and help your child explore what they are willing to do, such as a re-do or making amends if needed.
If your parenting goal is to reduce power struggles, the answer lies in connection and teaching, not in punishing. As we say goodbye to time-outs, we can lean into time-ins and not only strengthen the relationship with your child, but build their brains for life skills that teach them about themselves, others, and the world.
It is then that we raise children who know how to recognize their emotions and manage their behaviors and to be authentically who they are, without squashing the spirit out of them. And that is where the magic lives.