Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Time Out for Toddlers: Controversy

How effective are time out techniques? That depends on how and why they are being used. There has been increased discussion lately on child discipline techniques among both professionals and parents. Here are some of the themes:

1) Time outs are being misused and/or overused.

2) Time outs might temporarily stop the immediate disruptive behavior but they do not address the reasons for the behavior in the first place.

3) Time out discipline should not be used to correct behavior, as it may be experienced solely as punitive and not as an opportunity to learn self regulatory skills (i.e., how to help children calm and learn to self soothe).

4) The parents' needs tend to be met with a time out (e.g., quieting the child) but have the child's needs been met?

5) Parents tend to put children in time out because they are frustrated and overwhelmed and do not know what else to do; children tend to act out because they are frustrated and overwhelmed and do not know what else to do. Typical toddler time outs do not necessarily teach either parents or children "what else to do."

Children's misbehavior or melt downs are reflective of their internal state; their behavior means something. Children tend to act out when they are tired, confused, frustrated, in need of attention, or are having a reaction to something in the environment. They often do not have the words to express how they are feeling so it comes out in their actions. It is when children are acting out that they need their feelings acknowledged and validated and they need to experience a connection with their parents. When feelings are reflected and validated, children learn appropriate expression of emotion and how to regulate behavior. Time outs have the potential to ultimately separate children from their parents and send a message that expression of emotion is not ok. Over time, children may come to disregard their emotions or hold them in, which could lead to further disruptive behavior, mental health problems (e.g., depression, anxiety), and/or relationship issues.

So, when and how is it appropriate to use time outs? If a child is completely dis-regulated, he/she may need a safe, comfortable, quiet space to find calm and re-connect with his/her parents (e.g., nestling on the couch with a parent and a favorite stuffed animal, toy, or blanket while reflecting on feelings). It is in these moments that parents serve as models and sources of regulation for their children. It is not a time for separation or isolation and suppression of feelings.

Children who feel understood and are helped to manage their feelings learn to regulate their emotions on their own, display less acting out behavior and have better relationships.