Okay–as a Millenial/Xennial time out was a favorite of all our parents and teachers. If we looked at the crayon wrong–TIMEOUT! If we wiggled too much at dinner–TIMEOUT! And sometimes the standards of “timeout” varied from person to person and who knows what else. And at the core of those timeouts was the fact that our parents and guardians were overwhelmed by what we were all doing (not necessarily anything bad) and so to make it stop–you guessed it! TIME OUT. Now decades later it’s our turn as parents to make decisions on how we’ll handle less than optimal behavior. And for me (especially after all my training in baby and child mental health) timeouts are not a solution I could consciously use/enforce. But that probably has you curious–so here is why I don’t timeout.
Timeout is not developmentally appropriate for children under three.
Like the scenarios above when a child does something that is deemed inappropriate, a timeout would be used as a disciplinary measure. Tha involves taking a child out from a social environment or a stimulating environment as a consequence to their “misbehavior”. And it usually is approached in a very punitive way: “if you don’t stop doing this, I will take you to timeout.” But kids under three don’t have the brain development to understand the concept of timeout or even the reasoning behind it. Unlike what our parents thought – we know today that they don’t actually learn not to do that thing.
Which means now there is a child sitting in a space, not understanding why they’re being punished bringing on the emotions of confusion and maybe even feeling abandoned. Especially if they’re being left alone to deal with whatever problem they’re having. They still have yet to develop any of the introspective skills required to say, “OH! I’m here because I did XYZ, so I need to not do that again.” And at this age, if they’re misbehaving that means they’re already having a hard time managing their physical space and emotions. Not to mention, putting them alone in a room by themselves can only make things worse because of our next point–coregulation.
Our kiddos need us to help them regulate, until they can do so for themselves.
Kids are in a constant state of developing their sense of self, especially little ones under 3, and actually beyond but in this article we are focused on under 3. And that means they rely heavily on their emotional connection with their caregivers for their psychological well being. So coming back around to those timeouts–as a result of some undesirable action we’ve isolated this kiddo in a room, away from caregivers exactly when this kiddo actually needs them most. That can be really stressful and emotionally distressing to them.
Why is this so distressing? Well–young babies and kids actually rely on their adults in order to be able to regulate themselves and be able to calm themselves down. Also referred to as coregulation. If there is no adult around, they are not actually being taught to calm themselves down in any helpful way and may resort to unhelpful ways (e.g. hitting or hurting themselves or something they found in the room). When they’re being left alone to deal with it. They’re actually being left alone to deal with the situation that they don’t actually have the skills or brain development to deal with.
Okay–not time out! What do I do instead?
Taking timeouts and isolation from adults out of the solutions toolbox, instead you can take your little one to a quiet place where you both can be together. As the adult is feeling calm and regulated, they can help their little one feel more calm and regulated.
Verbalise what they are feeling say things like:
- “I see that you’re having a really hard time with some big emotions (name them)”
- ”I see that you’re really upset. Let me help you calm down your big emotions.”
You might be thinking what your parents thought – but Valerie if I’m giving them such positive attention – wouldn’t this encourage them to misbehave again? And the short answer is no – it will actually help them learn better. Once they have calmed down, and their thinking brain can think again – is a much better time to teach (e.g. we it’s okay to feel angry but it’s not okay to throw toys at your friends). As well – you are actually teaching them that you are there for them when they need most which turns this experience into a moment of connection and learning helpful skills.
Need more help with all things toddlers and want to better understand and support your toddler with skills and strategies. Want to feel confidence in helping your toddler without having to resort to things like Time Out. Then my toddler sleep essentials course is a next great step for you. It helps you better understand your toddler, so that you both can feel good about your relationship (and helps you get better sleep!)