Not All Time-Outs Are the Same

Not All Timeouts Are Equal

This past weekend my son had three time-outs. My daughter had a couple of her own. He is five, she is three and according to the experts, this kind of punishment is now said to leave potentially serious, lasting effects on our children. They claim a child can feel what psychologists refer to as “relational pain.” When a child is disciplined with time-outs, they feel punished and isolated. When examined through the lens of a brain scan, this relational pain can look the same as physical abuse. This brain imaging shows that when a child feels rejected in this way, an imperative psychological need goes unmet. The patterns look very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.

The article that TIME magazine published covering this controversial topic, featuring the research of Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., (clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine) and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D (co-author — with Siegel — of the best-selling book, The Whole-Brain Child), stopped me dead in my tracks. I had an immediate emotional response to it.

I questioned myself. I rationalized. (“Our time-outs aren’t like the ones these psychologists are describing, right?”) I read on to soak up the latest research.

ABUSE. That’s a powerful, mighty sword of a word. One that causes most parents to stop whatever they are doing to pay attention, not just me.

Bryson and Siegel’s accumulative research and studies in neuroplasticity (the brain’s adaptability) have found that the implications of time-outs are hazardous, proving that frequent and repeated time-outs can actually change the physical structure of the brain. While I’m not a fan of raising self-entitled brats who don’t know how to self-regulate or respect themselves and others, or how to feel and exhibit empathy and compassion … I’d also like to avoid being triggered into losing my temper too often and/or using time-outs flippantly.

While I prefer to call  it “Quiet Time,” “Time-Out” slips out every now and then. But does it matter what we call them? I’m not sure. I think the defining factors stride close together: measured intent, even in the heat of the moment. Frequency and duration; equal amounts of love, patience, and kindness administered along with physical presence while still remaining stern, even when I’m absolutely drained and all I want to do is toss my head in a pillow and scream. You have to squash the urge to walk away. I had my time. I’m the grown-up now. This is the kind of self-talk I administer upon myself when I find myself not resembling the type of parent my kids deserve. Above all else, when I discipline my kids, it has to be about teaching them … not punishing them. I’ve written about this before.

Is there a fine line, I asked myself? Are there extremes? Shouldn’t there be times when it’s okay to walk away to give everyone the space they need and time to cool down? Shouldn’t I be teaching my kids to self-regulate? To problem solve on their own? To learn how to comfort themselves?


The key to Bryson and Siegel’s findings (and their advice) turns out to be very similar to that of my own gut instincts. They propose that a parent’s presence is paramount to how the brain receives being put in a time-out. (They like to call it a “Time-In” and I kind of like that.)

Parents like me who came across the TIME article and felt sick to their stomachs questioning their disciplining and the number of time-outs they’ve given their kids … well, I don’t have any golden nuggets of wisdom to offer you. We’re supposed to feel challenged and acknowledge when we make mistakes and falter. We’re supposed to be humbled and allow ourselves to be open enough to learn new things, new techniques in parenting.

It’s all about moderation. It’s about establishing a loving connection, sitting with our kids, sometimes silently until the meltdown subsides, sometimes talking and/or comforting … these exercises take time. Time that we don’t always have in our everyday realities outside of a microscopic psychologist’s lens. When dinner’s boiling over, or we’re late for school, or our face is hot and burning under the assault of a small child screeching in our face. So I carve out that time the best I can and forgive myself the times that I can’t. I take some small comfort in knowing that the times that I slip, or the times that I just can’t be there are few and far between.

While I fully agree with Bryson and Siegel that time to calm down can be extremely valuable for children, teaching them how to pause and reflect on their behavior … I don’t necessarily agree that a parent has to be present every single time to be able to craft such a relationship with their child. That space apart doesn’t always equal isolation.

Discipline in parenting, how I dole out consequences, what “type” of parent I am, none of it matters if I’m not constantly digging deeper and striving to be a better grounded, loving, patient, and respectful parent. Respectful of my own limits and triggers and those of my young off-spring who depend on me (and their dad) to teach them healthy behaviors (even if they don’t know it in the moment), essential for their cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development.

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