Timeout is a temporary, artificial, and inadequate solution to a real problem. Worse, it actually prevents us from seeing the real problem, because when kids feel judged and rejected, they tend to clam up (as we all do). Timeout closes the door on communication in the misguided hope that children will think about their behavior and, shamed, resolve to do better in the future. The problem with this logic is that it assumes children are thinking reasonably when they are breaking the rules. The truth is that they’re usually acting on impulses that don’t make sense to them either. So, in effect, we’re expecting them to reason out the unreasonable while dealing with equal doses of shame and guilt, then miraculously come to their senses and henceforth conduct themselves with a more mature level of self-control.
This is a fantasy. It’s just not going to happen.
In truth, timeout is the exact opposite of what our children need when their behavior hits the skids. Defiance, aggression and other limit pushing behavior are our children’s way of letting us know their impulses have taken hold. Self-control has left the building, and they need to be able to depend on ours as back-up. This can only happen when we’re tuned in, not turning them away in anger or judgment.
With this crucial shift in perspective as a starting off point, and a clear understanding of our role, we successfully handle challenging behavior by following these steps:
- Focus on helping our children when they can’t help themselves.
- Set limits calmly and early, expect impulsivity.
- Be ready to physically follow through with limits by preventing unsafe or inappropriate behavior, heroically removing children from situations when they’re clearly unraveling (which is “time-in” rather than timeout, akin to what my son’s British soccer coach calls “taking a breather”).
- Accept and acknowledge feelings without judgment, so that children can trust us as their empathic leaders and themselves as good people.
Jaqueline shared the positive results of her shift in perspective:
I just want to share my story and to thank you for what you do.
My baby daughter was born with some complications and ended up in the NICU for just under two weeks, during which time we didn’t know if she would live. Obviously, this was a stressful and difficult time for all of us, including my 3-year-old son. My parents and sister flew in to help with him while we tried to balance time at the hospital and home.
Fortunately, the baby recovered, but she has been very high needs. My son’s demeanor changed, and for the first time he seemed to be experiencing a deep sadness that I couldn’t address. He began looking for every opportunity to hurt the baby, and although I have always disliked punishments, I began resorting to timeouts because I didn’t know what else to do.
Recently, I began listening to your podcast, and it has changed my entire perspective. My son is big for his age and very well spoken, so sometimes it’s hard to see him for the little person that he is. When I began to see that his actions were impulsive and that my job was not to correct them but to help him, it became much easier for me to calmly set limits.
One day he was particularly volatile, and we went through several rounds of “I won’t let you…” before I realized that he was tired. I carried him to his bed, validating his feelings while he kicked and screamed. When he refused to choose a book, I calmly chose one for him and we read it together.
Afterward he asked me to tell him the story of when he was born. I told him and then, with tears in his eyes, he said, “I couldn’t go to the hospital when Adelaide was born. They didn’t want kids there because they didn’t want the babies to get sick, but I wasn’t sick! I missed you and you were gone. You were always gone. And Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Rachel are not my parents! You are my parents, and I need my parents! And I hate that you have a baby because you can’t play with me,”
I was taken aback and choked out through my own tears, “I know. It was so hard. We had to be at the hospital all of the time, and I really missed you, too.” Then he said, “Let’s read another book,” and that was that. This was four months after she was born and was the first time he ever talked about it.
I know that the change in my response is what allowed him the space to voice these feelings. This moment was such an incredible gift. As you probably have guessed, the attempts at hurting the baby have diminished quite a bit, and I am feeling more confident in my parenting than I ever have.
I cannot express how incredibly grateful I am.
Besides easing challenging behavior and fostering the healthy development of self-regulation, the beauty of this respectful discipline approach is the way it deepens our parent-child connection. As Jackie’s story illustrates, when we come from a place of trust and acceptance, we uncover the reasons behind impulsive behavior. We might be blessed to know our children’s innermost thoughts and feelings, perhaps even become their trusted confidants for life.
If not us, who will they share with?
For more, here’s a podcast that may be helpful: