By Shane Lynch, Coordinator, Fathers Moving Forward Program, Catholic Family Service
For many years, it has been the belief of parenting educators that time-outs are key to teaching children to behave appropriately. Many of us may even have firsthand experience of this discipline technique.
For some it was, “That’s enough. Go sit in the corner.” Or, “You’re on a time-out. Sit quietly until I say otherwise.” The goal? Most parents would say that it got their child’s attention, it was a consequence for misbehaviour, or it gave them the peace and quiet they desperately needed in that moment. While it has been my experience that parents who use time-outs do so with good intentions, it is important to consider the unintended consequences of using this technique with our kids.
When children misbehave or struggle to follow your lead, isolating them with a time-out is achieving the opposite of what you want to do, according to developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Children crave and are programmed to seek out your contact. Even when children are behaving in a way you would prefer, they seek connection with you. However, what we have learned is when they misbehave they crave your contact even more!
When we deprive them of our contact by ordering a time-out, we create what Neufeld calls “attachment alarm.” That is, children fall into a state of alarm when they are not able to be in contact with us. Neufeld describes three emotions that arise in children following time-outs:
- First, their anxiety skyrockets as the biological impulse to connect is cut off by our decision to punish them with disconnection.
- Second, the feeling of pursuit is engaged. Children may protest, appear unable or unwilling to separate, or make promises they will never behave that way again. While these promises may sound good to us at first, it comes from a place of insecurity, uncertainty and panic due to the threat of detachment.
- Third, the child becomes frustrated, which can lead to aggression. If frustration is experienced frequently in this way, it can lead to children actually wanting you to ‘go away.’ They begin to resist their own urge to attach, which is called defensive attachment. In order to defend against attachment alarm, they detach from you instead. When children detach from us, they won’t follow our lead.
While time-outs were recognized as the safe replacement for spanking, we now know that separation caused by time-outs is also terribly wounding for a child. So the next time you’re reaching into your parenting tool kit for a time-out, reach a little deeper and pull out a time-in instead.
Fathers Moving Forward offers groups in co-parenting, being a dad and financial literacy for young fathers aged 16 – 26. It is offered at Louise Dean Centre, a school for pregnant and parenting teenagers in downtown Calgary.