Why I Don’t Recommend Timeouts
by Susan Stiffelman, MFT
Many parents swear by timeouts, and a significant percentage of pediatricians even
recommend their use. Indeed, with a young child, a timeout—or the threat of being
sent away—achieves its purpose. Children’s fear of separation is primal, and can scare a
child into becoming will obedient.
But while timeouts may work in the short-term, they come with a significant long-term
• Timeouts send a child the message that she is only lovable and acceptable when she
is behaving as we wish. The problem with this notion is that to be human is to be
complex; we have both our light and shadow side, and to develop healthy self-esteem,
we need to embrace all of who we are. When we send a child away because she isn’t
managing her dark side, we’re reinforcing the notion that to be loved and lovable
requires splitting off from the part of us that is messy,
• Timeouts covey to the child that we cannot handle them unless they’re good.
Children need confident Captains of the ship to help them through life’s difficult
lessons. When we send a misbehaving child to his room because we can’t handle his
misbehavior or moodiness, we’re effectively “jumping ship”, creating anxiety in a child
who needs to know that we can handle whatever challenge he may face.
• When children are out of control, what they need most is the calming presence of a
parent who will help them develop the language to appropriately express the big
feelings they’re experiencing. Children who are sent away to “think about what they’ve
done” do not think about what they’ve done. They either stew in their hurt and anger,
or figure out ways to get out of the Timeout, either by lying and promising to “never to
do that again,” sneaking out of their room (triggering more power struggles with the
punishing parent), or learning to act remorseful without actually feeling remorse.
• Timeouts trigger deep abandonment fears. The most profound punishment in a tribe
is to expel or shun a member, casting him out if he has done something wrong.
Timeouts are the equivalent of shunning, and can terrify—or harden—a child who is
dependent on a parent’s presence and protection. The use of Timeouts triggers clingy
behavior in children, escalating their anxiety about being left or rejected.
When timeouts don’t work, it is usually for one of two reasons. Either the child has
become so angry and hurt that he acts as though he doesn’t care if he’s sent away. Or
he repeatedly “escapes” from Timeout or refuses to go.
Some parents become so frustrated by their child’s negative response to timeouts that
they escalate their efforts to force the child to stay away, going so far as to physically
carry the child to their room, or locking them behind the door. This generates
enormous panic in the child. Rather than engaging in this kind of dramatic power
struggle and conflict, parents are best advised to use other strategies that don’t
alienate or harm the child, while still providing clear expectations for behavior and
appropriate outlets for managing upset with the parent’s help.
I am especially concerned when I hear from a parent that timeouts aren’t working
because a child doesn’t care if she’s sent to her room. In this case, it’s crucial that
parents heal the damaged connection and restore trust, while creating a climate for
their child to express pain, hurt or anger around overly harsh punishments.
No parent is perfect, and we all resort to less than ideal parenting strategies when
we’re at the end of our rope. But generally speaking, it’s best to learn discipline
techniques that work (and there are many) without creating the problems caused by
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