Time out or time in? “In a brain scan, relational pain—that caused by isolation during punishment—can look the same as physical abuse. Is alone in the corner the best place for your child?”
This is the question asked by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson in their Time article, “‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child.”
Most of the advice given to parents and early childhood educators is that time out is the best way to discipline a child but is it effective? “Not according to the implications of the latest research on relationships and the developing brain.”
Discipline should be about teaching and not about punishment. A child is continually being disciplined in early childhood and studies in neuroplasticity show that the brain structure changes when experiences are repeated. Repeated experience of the ‘time out’ teaches the child to feel abandoned and isolated when what they are in need of is attention and connection. Their intense emotions have got the better of them and they don’t have the internal resources to regulate the big feeling or intense desire so they act in a way that is disrespectful, aggressive or uncooperative.
“When the parental response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain — like that caused by rejection — looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity….”
The young child has a profound need for connection – a need to belong. ‘Time out’ means that this very need is unmet, the parent or carer is giving the message “You don’t belong to me!” so not only is the rejection experienced in ‘time out’ painful, it is actually the opposite to meeting the needs of the child.
“On top of everything, time-outs are usually ineffective in accomplishing the goals of discipline: to change behavior and build skills. Parents may think that time-outs cause children to calm down and reflect on their behavior. But instead, time-outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them.”
So what should a parent or carer do? Time out or time in? There definitely needs to be a time for calming down. Playing some soothing music in the background can help regulate those ‘out of control’ emotions, but then time is needed to sit with the child and reflect on the behaviour that requires disciplining – teach them how to pause – give them the words to describe what they said and did and what it means to others. There are nursery rhymes about behaviour. Singing Ding Dong Bell can take the focus off the child in your lap and divert it to a boy “who tried to drown poor pussy cat”, giving you a chance to discuss the behaviour at hand. Loving touch is part of the connection needed at these times. A “blow-up” is a teaching moment and a time for togetherness – not for the punishment of isolation that teaches rejection and leaves a brain scar akin to physical pain.
“And all of this will make parenting a whole lot more effective and rewarding in the long run.”
Siegel, Daniel J. and Bryson, Tina Payne, ‘TIme-Outs Are Hurting Your Child’ in Time Ideas Sept 23, 2014 (retrieved 23rd April, 2016).
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight institute.
Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is the co-author (with Siegel) of the best-selling The Whole-Brain Child.