Discipline: Out with ‘time-out,’ in with ‘time-in’

“Time-out” is an age-old disciplinary method that most parents know of, and may have even experienced themselves in their own childhood. The method has been passed down through generations and often used by parents, teachers and caregivers in present day.

Clock on wallThe goal of time-out is to modify a child’s behavior by removing any potential response that might “reinforce” the unfavorable action. The process typically involves removing any and all possible positive sensory experiences by placing a child in an area of solitude such a quiet corner.

Though this form of discipline has been used for decades, Lorenzo Azzi, a clinical psychologist at Southwest Human Development’s Good Fit Counseling Center, says that parents should consider how short-term compliance may not be worth the psychological effects that time-out can have on a child’s long-term psyche.

“There are a lot of reasons why a lot of mental health practitioners today are having more and more concern about the use of time-out,” says Azzi. “For one, time-out doesn’t in any way, shape or form actually address whatever the problem is underlying the behavior in question.”

While time-out may result in less unwanted behavior, the disciplinary strategy could impact a child’s view of themselves and lead to lasting negative effects if used frequently. Azzi explains that a parent completely preventing their child to have access to them during times of frustration, upset or complete dysregulation conveys a negative message from parents.

“If time-out is something that is used on a regular basis and the message that the child is constantly getting is, ‘When I’m feeling the worst, I’m on my own. When I need you the most, you can’t tolerate me,’ the result of that as an ongoing message I think can have some really negative consequences for a child,” said Azzi. “Especially as they’re growing up and face new developmental challenges feeling as though they must go through the toughest parts without support from their parents.”

Children’s behavior, favorable or not, is a communication of a need in some way. Less desirable behaviors could be result of a child communicating a feeling of being overwhelmed with a negative emotion. Their actions could be a symptom of anxiety, stress or fear. Children sometimes also act out to communicate any number of needs including lack of sleep, hunger or sensory overload.

Instead of children having to cope with these overwhelming feelings on their own, Azzi suggests that the best alternative to time-out is actually the opposite — “time-in.” The first thing a parent or caregiver should do in a moment of heightened emotions, should be to examine their own emotions. When an adult is feeling particularly frustrated or angry, they’re likely not in a place to help a child with their feeling.

When a parent is calm and ready, a time-in entails sitting together and beginning the process of calming down together by engaging in activities such as sitting together, breathing together, perhaps even moving to a different location and looking out a window until feelings start to change.

The overall goal is to calm down and regulate feelings before beginning a two-way conversation to understand what happened, and why it may have happened. Only at this point can children really begin to learn new, more socially appropriate ways of managing their feelings and behavior. Though children’s time-ins will look different depending on the age and development of the child, they may provide the best alternative to leaving time-outs in the past.

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All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care. Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article. You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance. Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.