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The Trouble with Time Outs

By Todd Sarner, MA, MFT, Director of Transformative Parenting

Josh and Sandy have two children: Jake, seven, and Tabitha, who turned four about a month ago. They love their kids and do everything they can to be great parents. When Jake was five, they started having problems with some of his behaviors. Sometimes Jake seemed not to be able to listen at all, ignoring anything his mom or dad asked of him. Other times he would get aggressive with Tabitha, wanting to play roughly or hit her. They asked their pediatrician what to do and he recommended using time-outs. He explained that when children misbehave, parents should give them one minute of time-out in his or her room (or in another designated area) for every year of his age.

Immediately, Josh and Sandy started using five-minute time-outs with Jake when he would “act up.” For a year or so this seemed to work most of the time, and they were thrilled. Jake either stopped the behavior immediately to “get out” of the time-out or he would behave better when he came back from his room. However, lately the time-outs have stopped working and things have gotten worse. When his parents threaten a time-out these days, Jake just says “I don’t care” and goes to his room and stays there. At the same time, his behavior is getting worse and worse. By the time Josh and Sandy came to see me for help, they were feeling frustrated and powerless.

The Greatest Human Need

Before we explore the origins and potential dangers of time-outs, let’s set the stage by talking about what children need more than anything else for healthy psychological and emotional development. This will explain the basis for most behavior issues.

The need for connection and closeness with those we love is the greatest human need. A well-established area of developmental psychology, Attachment Theory, is dedicated to studying this phenomenon. One of the rules of Attachment is that most of our behavior as humans is determined by how well we are able to “hold on” to those that we love—how well we are able to feel deeply connected, even while apart. When we have deeply rooted connections, we thrive.

When we feel alone or disconnected, we want to be connected. We want not to be alone. At first, we seek “positive” attention from those we love. If we can get it, it is wonderful. However, if we cannot get positive attention, we will get attention any way we can—even if it is more “negative” attention. The fear of separation, of not being connected to those who are most important to us, is so huge, so primal, that any connection is better than none.

The Origins of the Time-Out

Time-outs are often introduced to parents as a “less harmful” alternative to spanking, a practice that was very common not too long ago but that has mostly become a thing of the past. This is good. It’s good that we don’t spank our children any more, and we should never go back to it.

As was the case with Josh and Sandy, many parents these days are introduced to time-outs by their pediatricians. In fact, the American Pediatric Association recommends the practice of “one minute for each year.” I am not questioning the intentions of these doctors—they are trying to provide parents with a helpful tool—but I disagree with the position that time-outs are not harmful.

Why Time-Outs are Harmful and Don’t Work

Children who are acting out are trying to tell us that something is wrong. They might not even know what it is, but their behavior tells us. Usually they are feeling disconnected or struggling with some difficult feelings. Using separation-based discipline like time-outs tells a child that when he is in need, we will answer his pleas for connection with the exact opposite of what he is asking for. The reason time-outs appear to work at first is that a child who is seeking proximity is very alarmed by the threat of greater physical and emotional distance. He’ll do anything he can to stop feeling this alarm.

What happened with Josh and Sandy is a perfect example. At first this threat works. Jake is so alarmed by the thought of having even more distance from his mom or dad that he stops doing what he’s doing. However, as time goes by Jake becomes desensitized to this separation and stops caring—because it hurts too much to want closeness and not get it. He puts an emotional wall around himself. When this happens often enough kids will turn to other people and things—such as friends, video games, or the internet—to get their needs met in a less vulnerable way. This makes it more difficult to do our jobs as parents.

“Sometimes when I am getting really angry with my child, aren’t time-outs the best thing I can do?”

I often say in my talks and in my consults with parents, that when we are at the boiling point with our kids and not seeing clearly, it may be true that somebody needs a time-out. It just may be the parent, not the child. It is not that all time-outs are all bad all the time; it’s just crucial that we understand their potential downside and that we become more conscious about how we use them.

One of the most important goals of parenting is to communicate the message to our children that even if what they are doing is not OK, our relationship with them is OK. Even if our intentions are wonderful, some of the discipline methods we are being encouraged to use these days (like time-outs) can result in a child feeling that your relationship is not OK—that they are not OK.

“But I’ve been using time-outs and they work. Sometimes all I have to do is threaten a time-out and the bad behavior stops.”

I hear this all the time from parents, and that’s why I told the story of Josh and Sandy. I know that time-outs—even just the threat of them—can appear to work at first; but they will stop working over time as your child becomes desensitized in order to avoid feeling the hurt of separation. This can cause real damage to your relationship with your child. This doesn’t mean you can’t repair this damage—you almost always can—but it will make things more difficult for a while.

My mentor Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of the must-have book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, likes to talk about what time-outs would do in a marriage. What if your spouse threatened separation (like making you sleep on the couch) every time you did something wrong? You might be motivated at first to shape up but eventually you’d probably become resentful and stop caring.
Parenting Without the Time-Out

Let’s go back to Josh and Sandy. When they first came to see me for parenting consultation they didn’t know what to do. Time-outs had worked well for a while and they had become dependent on them. The problem was that time-outs stopped working and they didn’t like the way they were relating to Jake these days.

I started working with them on shifting their entire parenting approach. I explained that we are supposed to do most of our jobs as parents proactively, not reactively. We need to provide for our children’s needs for closeness and connection before there is a problem. If we don’t, we will spend our time figuring out the best way to react to their problem behavior. This is like reacting to symptom after symptom rather than addressing the underlying disease.

In this particular case, I worked with Josh and Sandy on improving a few fundamentals in their home. I encouraged them to shift their perspective from reactive parenting to insight and proactive behavior. I suggested that when things were not going well they ask themselves, “what is my child’s need here?” and, “what is going on with him right now?” Learning to read a child’s emotional state and needs is critical.

We worked on improving how often they were “collecting” their kids. This is a term Dr. Neufeld uses often in his work. To collect a child means to provide the connection and proximity she is seeking—preferably before she seeks it. It means that we need to connect with our children before we do anything else. For Josh and Sandy, this meant incorporating lots of new rituals, big and small. With two children and a busy schedule, they realized that sometimes they might have just assumed Jake was OK, when actually he needed some more connection. Sometimes this meant spending extra time reading with Jake in the morning before school. Sometimes this meant “special time” with Mom in the afternoon. Sometimes this simply meant surprising him with a big hug and kiss when he wasn’t expecting it.

Most importantly, I worked with them on being more conscious of communicating the message to Jake that no matter what happened, they loved him, and that their relationship was OK. At first Sandy was almost offended when I brought this up. She said, “Of course he knows we love him.” However, she soon realized that although this was obvious to her, at times it wasn’t obvious to Jake. He is a sensitive boy and needs a lot of attention and reassurance at times.

Being more proactive immediately made a big difference in their home, but they still wanted to know what to do when incidents actually happened. I told them that the guiding principle with incidents was to try to do no harm and to avoid the temptation of teaching a lesson in that moment. If Jake was doing something they found unacceptable, they should let him know it’s not OK in a way that is firm but loving. Then it’s usually best to take control of the situation, to change things up. When the situation has calmed down and they are feeling a strong connection to Jake, they can talk to him about what happened and why it was unacceptable—in a way that Jake can hear.

These days, they don’t have nearly as many of the kinds of incidents that used to lead to a time-out. But when they do have a difficult situation, Josh and Sandy have a completely different way of handling it. They are more confident and empathetic and they make a priority of not making the situation worse with more feelings of separation. They communicate that the behavior is wrong, but they also communicate that they are OK and things will be OK.

Time-outs are used by the majority of parents in North America and are endorsed by lots of well-meaning professionals. They are used in many of our schools. Don’t judge yourself for using them in the past; that won’t help you or your child.

If you are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed with your child and you just need to regroup, then maybe some form of time-out wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. You can give yourself a time-out and take some deep breaths, or have your child sit quietly while you’re in the room. Just have more consciousness about the situation and the language you use. Realize that by the time your child is acting out, something is really wrong and your child needs you to help make it right. Separation problems are at the root of most of our problems as humans. Don’t make them worse by using more separation.

What To Do Now:

1. Work on “collecting” your child more often, especially at transition times in the day—such as in the morning, after school, and after dinner. Provide some connection, even brief ones, when your children are not expecting them and definitely before there are signs they need it. Try this out for a couple of weeks to see what a difference it makes.

2. Help your child “hold on” to you emotionally through separation and through incidents. When she is going to be away from you, give her ways of feeling connected to you until you are reunited. Let her know you’ll be thinking about her with a surprise note in her lunch, or even something physical to hold on to like a bracelet of yours or a special token. And when you have an incident, communicate the message, “We’re ok and we’ll get through this.”

3. Work on growing your awareness, especially when incidents occur, of what’s going on emotionally for both you and your child. Take responsibility for your emotions and your actions. Keeping a journal can be very helpful for this. Parenting is a hard job, and it will bring up all of your unhealed emotional material. Working through these issues with compassion towards yourself will reap enormous benefits.

So what do you think? I’d love to hear your questions and comments about this post! – Todd


Most Child Behavior Problems Are (Temporary) Relationship Problems- And Most Parenting Advice Just Makes Them Worse

by Todd Sarner, MA MFT. Director of Transformative Parenting

After years and years of working with parents and children, it is my firm belief that most behavior problems that we experience with our children are actually relationship problems, usually just temporary ones, and that most of the parenting advice that you find out there is actually making these problems worse.

Many of you already know this because you’ve experienced it. Your children have displayed troubling or frustrating behaviors and you’ve done your best to ask for advice or search the internet or buy a book…sometimes lots of books.

But when it comes time to try out this advice you usually have one of two results. Sometimes, the advice works at first but then stops working over time. Other times, it never works at all! You can be left feeling pretty frustrated or like something’s wrong with you.

The thing is…most parenting advice is like this because it’s based purely on behaviorism. This is a model that says parenting is about what you do when your child misbehaves to make them stop doing it. This is reactive and doesn’t work because it’s the same as just managing symptoms. It doesn’t address the underlying problem.

Our real job as parents is to be proactive and to understand these underlying issues so we can either avoid them in the first place or confidently and effectively respond to them if they do happen.

Let me ask you some questions…

What is it like for you when you are feeling insecure in your important relationships? Like when you’re fighting with your spouse? Do you behave at your best? Do you get grumpy or frustrated or sometimes snap at people for small things? When you and a loved one are having a hard time and you’re not really feeling connected and they ask you to do something, even a relatively easy thing, do you sometimes say “no” automatically?

Now if that’s true for us as adults…why wouldn’t this be true for children?

I have been working with children and parents and families for a very long time. I have personally consulted 100’s and 100’s of parents and I am absolutely convinced that almost all behavior issues that parents are experiencing with their kids are one way or another tied to relationship issues. And like I said before, usually just temporary issues.

Just so we’re clear, however, I am not saying it’s because you have a bad relationship with your child. That can happen in some cases of course but it’s a more complex issue than that.

Let’s take not listening and defiance for example. The number one reason a child doesn’t listen or is defiant towards a parent (or anyone else) is that they don’t feel connected to them in the moment so they don’t hear them or just instinctively just say “no!”. I explain in other articles and videos how this reaction is actually there to protect your child from being led astray by someone they’re not connected to. And like I said, it’s an instinct. You can’t control instincts with punishment or taking things away or time outs.

In this case, the solution is being more mindful of the fact that we can’t just take relationship for granted, we can’t just assume our child feels connected to us in the moment and that we can just tell them what to do. We know this as adults! We’re not supposed to walk in the room and tell a loved one…or even someone we work with or do business with…what to do. We’re meant to connect first.

And what about issues of aggression? Most aggression, from the obvious stuff like hitting and biting and kicking to temper tantrums or sibling aggression are simply a buildup of frustration that is bubbling over. And guess what the root cause of most frustration is? You guessed it…relationship. Meaning, the thing that frustrates us most as human beings is not being able to hold on to who or what we are most attached to.

This doesn’t mean we never leave our child’s side or that frustration is a bad thing. Frustration is part of life and we want our children to be able to handle it over time. I’m just suggesting there’s a good, logical reason our child is frustrated. Sometimes our job as parents is to apply firm but compassionate limits that help our child get out their tears so they won’t be so frustrated.

Unfortunately, too often the advice we get or the strategy we try involves taking away what our child is attached to (or at least threatening to). The problem is, if our child is already frustrated and we threaten to take away something important to them- like their favorite toy or an upcoming event or we make them go away from us to be alone because of their behavior…it can only serve to frustrate them more.

And what about issues of bossiness in children? To understand that, you must understand that one of the main rules of human attachment behavior is that attachment is always a hierarchal relationship. Meaning, it’s not exactly a relationship of equals. When it comes to very close attachment relationships, like between parent and child…it is not an equal relationship like friendship.

Of course we love and respect our kids and don’t think we’re better than them or anything. But attachment is not a relationship of equals. It is a relationship between what we call an Alpha- the one who is the natural authority, who is meant to be in the lead, the who takes care of the other- and the one who is being taken care of.

It always arranges this way. Especially if your child is feeling insecure or disoriented or in need, you can not treat them from an “equals” position… it doesn’t work that way. You have to be in the Alpha position and taking the lead. Because guess what happens if you’re not? THEY will take the Alpha position. It’s an instinct. They don’t think it out, they just do it.

When a child is feeling insecure and they don’t sense an Alpha presence in the lead, they move to be in charge themselves- bossing, telling you and others what to do, acting like a parent. This is a relationship problem. Anything you do from the “equals” place and anything you do with your child in the Alpha position won’t work.

And I like I also said, I am not saying you have a bad relationship with your children. I am saying our children are much more naturally prone to having a hard time feeling secure or connected in relationship at any given point because of their lack of long-term experience and because of their brain development. Especially younger children. Before at least age 7 or 8 children have a harder time holding on and staying connected because the part of their brain that helps them do this is not fully functional yet.

So what do we do with this knowledge? The most important thing is that we just realize that the way we approach behavior problems and how we understand them makes a big difference in how effective we are in solving them. If we see our children as doing things “on purpose” or consciously because they are just trying to push our buttons or something, nothing we do from that place will be effective or feel very good. Parenting will always feel like a struggle.

But if we come from a place of understanding that our child is almost always behaving the way they are as a natural outcome of their sensitivities and their environment and their situation…and that they’re acting out of instinct…our whole approach will work better. We would strive to have a culture in our home that helps children stay connected to us more often. We would react to behaviors in a more calm, grounded way and not take them personally.

What I invite you to do is spend at least a week or so keeping these ideas in mind. Try to be an aware observer of your children’s behavior. Strive to always connect first with your child, especially after time apart or transitions. Notice if there is a problem, what preceded it? Did you connect first or just come in and tell your child what to do? Has your child been dealing with a lot of frustration this week and have they had a chance to get it out with a good cry? And maybe more important sometimes, are you reacting to your child’s behavior based more on what they’re doing or based on what’s going on for you?

At Transformative Parenting, we are dedicated to helping children become emotionally healthy and grow into their greatest potential by helping their parents with the most effective, relationship friendly and developmentally safe parenting information. Information and coaching that helps you be the parent you want to be and that your child needs you to be.

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