Updated: Aug 12, 2021
Do time outs work? The new experts and new parenting books will tell you that time outs are hurting your child. These parenting experts will have you believe that time outs increase power struggles. That it doesn't support the emotional connection between you and your child, and it fails to help them regulate their emotions.
They not only forbid time outs, but they also provide a new modern alternative to time outs. This alternative is called time in. Time in is supposed to be where your child knows their needs are being met, and this supposedly decreases the power struggle and provides an emotional connection. The idea is to sit with your child while being isolated from what triggered them and simultaneously acknowledging their feelings.
In other words, needs are being met when they act up and on their terms, not yours. Who's the parent here?
Sometimes I wonder if these experts even have children.
Our kids misbehave at the most inopportune times, such as when we are cooking, or have friends over. The last thing you have time for is to sit in time in with your child, whom you are disciplining. If anything, they can outlast you as you need and want to get back to what you were doing more than they need or want to get back to playing. You'll cut the time short, and they'll be back to playing/misbehaving no sooner than letting them out. The parent in me claims it is not practical; it is far too complex. The therapist in me knows the simpler your discipline, the more likely you will follow through and remain consistent. Time in, is not simple, and you will fail to follow through.
We as parents can and should acknowledge our children's feelings, but this is not at the expense of adequately evaluating the situation and determining if those feelings are based on reality, or if those feelings are worth venting in the first place. This evaluation can better take place once your child has calmed down and has time to reflect.
When your child has calmed down, you then have a better opportunity for connecting. In turn, they will not form a habit of misbehaving, knowing it gets them immediate positive attention and or affirmation from the parent.
Time in assumes you, the parent, should affirm how your child feels all the time. The world does not lack for people who think their feelings are priority and indifferent to others. And the world does not opperate that way. No, we as parents do not have to affirm our children's feelings in the middle of a meltdown.
After your child has calmed down it is good to then validate what prompted their feelings, provided it fits the facts. This is not the same as validating their behavior which earned them time out in the first place. Bottled up emotions can become destructive, but letting them spill out every time they become agitated without consequences encourages bad habits, and habits are more difficult to deal with in the long run. As with most things, the virtue or ideal is the mean between the extremes. In this case, the two extremes are bottled up emotions (the deficiency) and unfettered expression of emotions (the excess).
In regards to power struggles, power struggles decrease the more consistent you are in your discipline. It will cease when children know you follow through, and they will begin to reflect on their choices because they know that consequences will follow. In time they internalize these rules. We know this as parents; how many of us can relate to our parents now that we have children of our own? They may not get it now, but that is not the point of discipline. The point of discipline is to stop bad behavior and to instill values. It is character development. The lesson is a life long lesson, and not one children get from ten minutes in the corner the first time.
Many parents will tell me, "but time outs do not work", "my child sings in the corner," or "I have tried everything." I tell parents to use punishments that they have more control over to enforce better compliance with punishments they have less control over. If your child will not stay in the corner or pitches a royal fit the whole time they are in there, do not nag or hassle them. Wait until they want something or are doing something they enjoy. Take it away until they do the corner time without fussing. You can level up and go on a parent strike where absolutely everything is a privilege, airwaves, electrical outlets, utilities, laundry service, certain foods until you get your time out, or a behavior change.
The bottom line, time outs work. It does not have to be a power struggle, and it does not hinder emotional bonding. In fact, there will be plenty of time for emotional bonding when there is a newfound order in the house, and time outs become less frequent because you, the parent, have followed through with real consequences.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.