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Ending Time Out (Part 1)

picture of an hourglass is used to represent a timer for timeout

Before you get too angry, let me start with this:  I am not actually going to tell you to stop using time out, it is a great intervention for all kinds of behavioral issues.  Now, with that out of the way...

I have two main issues that I want to explore.
1.) Time out is not a catchall consequence for all behaviors, it has a specific purpose.
2.) Time out should be called time away, and this is not a minor distinction.

Time out is not a catchall
The purpose behind any consequence should be to teach appropriate behavior.  Our culture has identified physical punishment as inappropriate, but has given little attention to what discipline should really be all about.  We don't want our children to stop something because we "said so", though we do say that we want that in exasperation at times.  We want them to make good choices because we have raised them to be genuinely good people.  If we randomly stick them in the corner we are just teaching them that we are more powerful than they are, so they should obey us.  This leads to problems later, in the rebellion years where they begin to question power dynamics.  Random time out can also teach them that they do not belong, because you are communicating that they must go away when they act inappropriately.  This is a particularly dangerous problem, in a world where our children often feel like outcasts.  A sense of belonging is a basic and primal need that when starved can lead to a multitude of other problems.  Think of your own struggles to belong/fit-in and practice some empathy on this one.

So what does this mean for time out?  Well, it should only be used for behaviors that can benefit from it.  Let's look at an example.

Do you know anyone that gets really angry and they need to be alone for a few minutes?  Maybe they go for a drive or a walk.  They might say something like "I just need a minute".  This is a great coping technique.  Sometimes when we are really angry the thoughts in our head get confusing and we need to sort through them alone.  When you see a child in this state it would be appropriate to use a time out to help them learn to sort through their own thoughts.  Forget everything you learned about minutes per age, and just let them step away.  When they are ready they can come back.  You may have to help them evaluate if they are really ready, but they should be able to check in without waiting for an arbitrary time.

A child may need a time out because they are overstimulated, requiring a soft area with minimal colors and items to allow their brain to relax.  A child may need a time out because they are anxious, requiring a soft, comforting space with toys, objects, or music they find calming.  They may need a time out because they are angry, requiring an open area with space from others and maybe even some physical outlets to fully release.  Each of these spaces may look different, but none of them should be designed for their boredom and displeasure.  If you were angry and said that you "need a minute"  and then someone in power stuck you in one spot that you associate as a bad place how fast would you "calm down"?

You also need to consider the pragmatics of timeout for a given situation and child.  If you have tried time out and it does not work for a specific child...just stop.  Even if you still use it for your other children.  Every child is different, and that is a conversation you should be willing to have with your children early.  Some adults need to step away, while others need to process when they are angry, children can have these same preferences.

It is also worth noting that sometimes it does not work because you have targeted the wrong reason behind the emotion/behavior.  A child who hits another child may benefit from the "if you hit, you sit" rule.  If he was angry and didn't know how to express that anger then a time out may help him regain control.  On the other hand a child who calmly hit another child to teach them a lesson or a boundary will not benefit from time out.  They had control and were not upset, so they don't need a time out to compose themselves.  They would need a different approach, but that is another topic all together.

This is not even close an extensive list of the reasons you would or would not use timeout, just a little food for thought.

In PART 2, I will discuss why we should actually use the words "Time Away" and why that distinction is important.

Please leave your comments below, if you have questions I can address I will do my best to help you out with an answer.  The Art of Family is all about helping you practice the art of "family" like the verb that it is.  You can help us out by sharing this site with other parents that you know.  Thank you for your precious time!


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