Time Out!

What does a child really learn when they’re put in Time Out?

by The Way of the Peaceful Parent on Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 2:27pm ·

What does a child learn when they’re put in Time Out?  Time Out is a popular approach and many parenting experts still advocate it as a constructive approach. But more and more parents are realizing that it goes against their better instincts, they know that children tend to pick up and reflect back our image of them, so it makes sense that treating them like a “naughty boy/girl”, will make them feel like a naughty child and hence act accordingly. Parents know that children learn more through our modelling than our words, so when we force a child against their will to stay in one place for an alloted time while ignoring or isolating them, are we not teaching them through our actions that forcing others to do something against their will is justified if they’ve done something wrong? Is this not what bullying looks like?


A vicious circle of bad feelings leading to bad behaviours and on and on.  Contrary to what parents hope, because the child whose been put in time out feels judged and rejected by their parent (just ask your child), they’re usually feeling too many negative feelings about themselves or their parent or both, to be able to access the reasoning part of their brain to think clearly and constructively about what might have worked better.  Their thinking is much more likely to be fuelled by their hurt feelings and perhaps a desire for revenge, as it’s human nature to resist being controlled and especially strong willed children won’t be able to resist the challenge of trying to regain their power in other ways.


To cultivate a peaceful harmonious home, our actions need to be non-threatening.  In the same way that if your partner forced you to go to your room against your will, you’d consider that they’d announced war between you, for children it feels similar, but because they’re little and dependent on us, they’re also instinctively driven to stay connected to us, so their efforts at revenge often become sneaky.  The child is still, is always, a good child, doing their best to instinctively meet their needs for loving acceptance and guidance.


Children feel unsafe when isolated.  Children are biologically driven to stay in close proximity to others, so being isolated, especially while they feel emotional rejection, even for a couple of minutes can feel very scary and is just a lot for them to cope with.   It’s very hard for children  to actually self-regulate or self-soothe in stressful situations without their parent’s support.  It’s beyond what they’re developmentally ready for as they’re prefrontal cortext is still developing.  When children are expected to deal with their own feelings without an adult’s empathy and guidance, they’re being expected to do something that they just can’t yet do. Because the lack of this care is difficult for a child to deal with, especially if isolated as well as not helped, they’re more likely to dissociate (cut off and repress) from those feelings, which begins a numbing process which works against the healthy development of love, empathy and emotional and social intelligence.


Our unacceptance of their feelings eats away at their self esteem Children who are rejected, scorned or ignored when their behaviour is unacceptable receive the message that their feelings are unacceptable, that they are unacceptable. They tend to become the teenager who locks themselves away in their room for hours on end when they’re not feeling happy and breezy, they’ve learned that there isn’t a place for their hurt and angry feelings in the family.  Worse still they’ve internalized their parent’s unacceptance of their feelings and then as teens find it very difficult to maintain their self-esteem when they have bad feelings.  The children who felt disliked when they had big feelings when young have learned to dislike themselves when they have difficult feelings as tweens and teens and are often the kids who seek pain relief from one source or another during the teen years.  Those whose feelings have been listened to even when they’ve made mistakes or acted out are more likely to feel deserving of seeking a listening ear, seeking guidance, seeking support when things are tough.


Children’s behaviour is driven by their feelings, not their thinking.  Children who can trust that their whole range of feelings and behaviours will be met with love, care and guidance have much lower stress levels, hence their behaviour tends to be more in balance.  Most of the behaviour that parent’s find unacceptable is the result of the child feeling big difficult feelings that they haven’t yet learned how to manage.  They’re jealous so they hurt the baby.  They’re angry, so they throw and break something.  A child who hurts the baby or purposely throws something to break it is already showing the signs that they have a backlog of hurt feelings. Sending a child to their room gives them more of these bad feelings to deal with without helping them get any of the backlog of bad feelings out, so the source of the problem is in fact intensified.


What should I do when my child is acting out?  If they don’t get the bad feelings out, they will act them out.  Instead of being harsh with your child or ignoring them, what they need is empathy and connection.  They may also need teaching, guidance and good information, but they can better receive that when they’re no longer stressed or upset.  Giving an out of balance child empathy will not only bring them back to a calm place quicker, it’ll teach them that when they are angry they’re still a good person who is just feeling hurt and needing support, which greatly increases their self esteem, trust in their self and trust in their parent.  When children don’t feel judged for being angry, they’re more likely to cry and seek out a comforting hug rather than hit the baby.  Children develop strong emotional resilience if they are consistently cared for when upset.


Instead of shutting them out, bring them back in.  Instead of shutting your child out when their behaviour is off track, recognize that they’re emotionally out of balance and in need of being brought back in, probably in need of some quality time with you that reminds them that they’re loved, accepted, supported and cherished even when – especially when – they get angry and frustrated.  Connection can happen as we set a limit, which really demonstrates unconditional love.  Instead of repeating your requests/orders again and again, instead of threatening that if they don’t stop … you’ll …, instead of sending them to their room, centre yourself, walk over to your child, meet them on their own level, touch them in a way that demonstrates your care, then express your limit “ornaments need to stay on the shelf, will you put it back or will I do it for you?”.  When we order, threaten or yell children will be in a state of stress even if they don’t show it, that stress inhibits their ability to listen, comprehend and follow our guidance, but when they see that we’re connecting and guiding with care, children generally find it much easier to cooperate.  And when they do protest and show their disappointment, this can be a great opportunity for them to get some big feelings out as we listen and validate those feelings.


Children who live free of threat are more settled, happy and cooperative.  You’ll see the benefits of this approach reflected in the deepening of trust and co-operation between you. You’ll see it reflected in their ability to work things through with friends and siblings when tensions soar. You’ll see it reflected in their increased self-confldence, self-esteem, problem solving skills and development of compassion and empathy for their self and for others.


Written by Genevieve Simperingham, mother of two children, parent educator, parent coach, holistic counsellor, writer, energy healer and group facilitator.  Genevieve has been running courses and workshops and running a private practice with adults and families for nearly 20 years.  visit www.Peaceful-Parent.com



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