We all need to decompress from difficult situations at times — to take deep breaths, to gain our composure and regroup. These “time-outs” help us recalibrate. This is just as important for parents as it is for children. Yet frequently time-outs for children are used punitively to transform unacceptable behavior into “appropriate” behavior. It’s certainly utilized as a popular tool, suggesting that it works well for getting the results we want, that our intended message is understood, that this approach is what’s needed. If that’s the case, what makes so many parents use this when they’re angry, frustrated that their child won’t behave?

“Misbehaving” children are usually expected to go sit quietly on a chair or on the stairs, or go to their rooms, to calm down and reflect on their behavior. If silence is broken or the child leaves the chair prematurely, the time is often extended. After a period of “calming down” (the child or the parent?!), she is allowed to rejoin the group/family, provided she will now behave “appropriately.” Our culture generally accepts the traditional “rewards and punishment” approach. This behavioral perspective is based on the concept of “operant conditioning,” which claims children behave when they receive rewards for “good” behavior and punishment for “bad” behavior. Although physical punishment has somewhat declined, wielding control by withholding love and attention can seem an acceptable alternative.

For those using this method, the belief is that time-out isn’t really a punishment, rather it’s a benign approach, a “consequence.” If we consider team sports, time-outs are an accepted, integral part of taking well-deserved breaks. But do we really believe that during a time-out, our children are harmlessly taking “well-deserved breaks” when, in truth, this approach can be shaming and humiliating to the child? This is a form of isolation, likely experienced by children as abandonment or rejection. Even when parents offer reassurance — “I still love you, but you need to go to your room because your behavior is unacceptable” — the action can overshadow the words. Young children can interpret the isolation, being ignored, as “nobody wants me around. I must be bad and unlovable.” Even well-intended, loving words cannot erase the negative feelings. Nothing is more distressing to a child than his parents’ seeming withdrawal of love.

First, think about what we hope to teach our child. If time-out is the alternative to spanking, harsh punishment, my concern is it’s also about power and control. This can be exerted for only a finite period of time, while children are young; we are unlikely to succeed in isolating adolescents by insisting they sit somewhere on a chair while we ignore them. What we should be teaching our children is conflict mediation, using connective communication and problem-solving, to prevent power struggles and to understand what their behavior is trying to tell us. There’s always an emotional root to a child’s misbehavior. The actions are serving some purpose. When children are in distress, don’t we want them to learn we will listen to them? We want to connect to the root of the problem, addressing the cause of the behavior, rather than using “time out” to provide immediate “symptom relief.”

Behavior provides the clue to our child’s “barometric pressure.” When we only address the behavior, we’re simply looking at the surface and missing what’s driving that energy. Inappropriate, out-of-bounds behavior signals something is wrong, that our child is out of balance. Believing the behavior will change by yelling, ignoring, rejecting, or punishing, without addressing the child’s feelings and needs, we’re certainly not helping our child or resolving the deeper issues.

A child melting down or raging receives a clear message with a time-out that we do not want him around when he’s upset. The message is strong that negative, angry feelings are not acceptable. Convinced that we won’t listen, he’ll soon stop bringing his problems to us. Just as parents need to step back at times, to decompress, to recalibrate at highly stressful times, our children need the same. We can model to them that giving ourselves a time-out is healthy self-care, providing a calm, safe space in which to regroup when we’re feeling out of balance. As remarkable as it is, when children are behaving at their worst, when they’re acting the least deserving of it, is exactly when they need our loving attention the most.

Please send me your questions.