We are all seduced by quick fixes.
For harassed and stressed parents, it can be tempting to believe that the answer to their child's behaviour is "out there" in publicised parenting tips or the latest fad doing the rounds of magazines and TV.
The reality is that parenting is a relationship and that your child's behaviour is influenced by your relationship with them, and by the home environment.
Parenting strategies such as "time out" and controlled crying are a one-size-fits-all approach which deliver under the assumption that children need to adapt to parents in order to be effectively socialised.
The reality is that good-enough parenting involves keeping the child "in mind" and teaches children how to self-soothe and to relate well to themselves and to others.
Good-enough parenting looks to strengthen the relationship you have with your child and to help them understand their own emotions and behaviours. Strategies like "time out" can ignore these important emotional learning opportunities.
Parents need to work to understand the emotions underlying their child's behaviour so that they can help meet the child's emotional needs rather than just focus on controlling difficult behaviours. This is what will work in the long-term.
"Timeout" can end up teaching children that there is no help for them and no amelioration or soothing for the helpless and intensely aroused states that accompany tantrums.
Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Position
The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc. (AAIMHI) aims (in part) to:
- improve professional and public recognition that infancy is a critical period in psycho-social development.
- work for the improvement tof the mental health and development of all infants and families.
Time Out Defined
Time out involves time away from a rewarding or positive environment as a consequence of some form of misbehavior, usually for 1 – 5 minutes. The definition used by AAIMHI for this statement is where the child is also removed from the presence of and/or interaction with the parent or carer.
Background to AAIMHI’s Position
AAIMHI’s concern is that some parents and others caring for children in the community understand time out as exclusionary time out, that is, as separation from the parent or caregiver as well as from the activity in which the child had been involved. This statement refers in particular to the use of time out with children in the first three years. However, some of the issues raised will also be relevant to older children.
While there is research that supports using time out to control behaviour, especially for older children, this research does not address the emotional impact on the child. Developmentally, children less than three years cannot be expected to be able to self regulate emotionally. Therefore they still need the presence of a caregiver to assist them with this process, not separation from them. Separation may increase a child’s insecurity and distress.
Many older children have never had emotional regulation modelled to them by their caregivers in ways that enable them to learn self regulation. They therefore also need the presence of a caregiver to assist them with the management of their feelings.
Children under three years may not have the developmental capacity to keep in mind the connection between their behavior and the response of the caregiver, especially if there is any time delay.
Unregulated feelings are the cause of ‘out of control’ behaviour; responding to this behaviour needs to be about responding to the underlying emotional need of the child. The most effective, long-lasting way to respond to this behaviour is for caregivers to understand how the child is feeling and thinking. Then the parent or carer can anticipate when problems will arise and plan to prevent them.
When they do happen, the parent can show that strong feelings can be understood and managed. Sometimes therapy may be needed for persistent ‘out of control’ behavior.
Time out – AAIMHI’s Position
The AAIMHI position on responding to children’s behavior is informed by an attachment theory model of relationships which is now backed by a very significant body of research. The use of time out (where the child is removed from contact with the parent or caregiver) with children under three years is inappropriate. The use of time out with children over three years needs to be carefully considered in relation to the individual child’s experience and needs.
AAIMHI concerns in relation to use of exclusionary (where the child is separated from the parent or caregiver) time out for children less than three years are:
- It does not teach constructive ways to deal with problems; instead it teaches separation as a way to deal with problems.
- It does not take into consideration the developmental capacities of young children under three. From an attachment and development-based point of view, children this age are experimenting and do not yet have the necessary skills to control impulses and emotion, i.e. their behavior is not misbehavior.
- It deliberately cuts off the child from the relationship with parent or carer so that the child feels powerless to connect with the adult; this cutting off from relationship is an intended consequence for the child’s behaviour and is seen by the child as a punishment.
- It does not address the message (cause) behind the behavior.
- It fails to recognise that young children do not learn self regulation of emotions by themselves; they need the support of a parent or carer.
Reinsberg (1999) lists five points to consider in responding to a child:
- Is this a developmental stage?
- Is this an individual or temperamental difference?
- Is the environment causing the behaviour?
- Does the child not know something but is ready to learn?
- Does the child have unmet emotional needs?
Some practical suggestions
1. Make sure the child’s environment provides for the basic needs of love, emotional and physical security, room to explore and encouragement. The emotional context should be with the parent and child in a partnership for growing and learning, not an oppositional one of controlling.
2. The parent needs to be the one in charge (in a guiding way), wiser than the young child. The child does better with a confident, kind caregiver.
3. Let young children be as much involved in helping with activities as is sensible. Show children how to do things that they can feel good about.
4. Monitor a young child’s activities and emotional state. Watch for early signs of distress or difficulty and act then (divert, attend to needs, give a hug, change the activity) rather than waiting for the emotional response to develop.
5. Respond to precipitating factors such as a child’s level of tiredness or excitement or family changes such as a new baby.
6. Calming routines before difficult situations are a good idea to get your child in a calm, well balanced state, e.g. a quiet game, a bath, a walk outside, a story.
7. Give young children choices where possible and within their capability.
8. Anticipate difficult situations. Think about when they happen and plan to avoid them if possible. For example, take with you some things to amuse a young child. Watching adults is very boring for them. If not, talk to the child about the situation ahead of time. Challenge the child with how you would like things to go: “I wonder if you would be able to (be clever, strong, etc.) and help me do this?” Have a plan in case things don’t go well.
9. Think about the event from the child’s perspective.
10. If you see an emotion rising in the child, note it and name it with them. For example:
“You are getting cross I know...”
“I understand you would like ... but we can’t because ...”
Give a short reason:
“We have to make sure you are (healthy, safe, kind to others, etc.).”
“I can help you (do something else).”
Or a challenge to the child of something acceptable to you:
“Maybe we could ... ”
11. If the above does not work, take the child away from the situation but keep the child with you (sometimes called ‘time in’). Remain as calm as you can and consistently restate your decision. Acknowledge the child’s feeling. Offer to connect with the child. “I know it is hard. Do you want a hug?”
12. Predict that this will be over soon. “I know we can calm you down. Very soon you will fine again.”
13. Importantly, parents who are very upset themselves need to take a break, as long as the child is safe. Helping parents to find support is important; there are always times in parenting when this is needed.
Specific resources for helping one and two year olds (and older) with behavior and feelings.
The Circle of Security model lists a step by step process called “Time In” during which the adult helps the child “organize their feelings.” In their approach, Time Out is for the parent to calm down (emotionally re-regulate) in order to be in a good state to respond to the child. See: www.circleofsecurity.com
This book by Otto Weininger is highly recommended for helping children to learn strategies for self regulation. Weininger states,
When children are upset, out of control, rude or angry, what they need most is to be with a safe and accepting adult. They need to be with someone who is calm and non-punitive, and can recognize that anyone can get very upset at one time or other. They also need someone who can help them express these strong feelings appropriately.
The context of responding to young children’s behaviour is to use the parental relationship with the child to assist the child with emotional regulation, i.e. young children learn emotional regulation in the context of the relationship and with the support of the parent. It is not something they learn alone.
Weininger makes the following points about exclusionary time out:
[Time out] assumes that, at any age, we learn by ourselves and do not need others to help us. It assumes that we already somehow know the ‘right’ way to do things and can simply go to our room and ‘tune into’ the right way. Again, it appears to the child we do not need anyone to help us do this ... I do not believe that children of two, three, four, five or even six are able to perform such thinking tasks because they do not yet have the reflective skills to do so ... time out is a punishment that deprives a child of the very relationship that he needs at the time the punishment is given.
See: Weininger, Otto (2002). Time-in parenting: how to teach children emotional self-control, life skills, and problem solving by lending yourself and staying connected. Toronto: L. Rinascente Books.
The Emotional Life of the Toddler: This book by Alicia Lieberman also has very helpful information about toddlers and how the way we respond to them helps them with important learning and development. It gives parents and carers a real insight into the world of the toddler and what is behind their actions and feelings.
NAEYC Statement on Time Out (NaturalChild.org)
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If you need help with your parenting or are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, please get in touch for a confidential discussion.