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Updated: Mar 11, 2020

by Dr Stephanie Satariano (Educational Psychologist)

Time-out is one of the most popular discipline techniques used today (if not the most popular). It is used by parents and schools and is often recommended by child development experts.

But, is it good for kids? Is it effective?

Simple answer, No.

Discipline is a huge part of parent-child interactions; and how you do it has a strong impact on your relationship and their overall development. Therefore, it is key that parents carefully think about how they respond to their child in general, and more importantly when they misbehave.

It is so easy for a parent and child to move from a positive, calm communication to the a stressful interaction; however moving back to the positive can often be quite difficult. Yet, the more positive and ‘attuned’ your interactions are with your child, the more your child will learn and grow – and so will your relationship.

Studies in neuroplasticity (the brain’sability to change and mold) have proved that repeatedexperiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. Parent-child interactions are one of the most powerful forms of experiences for any child – and disciplining forms a huge part of that. And so it goes without saying, that parent-child interactions are key to brain development.

Effective and successful discipline is about teaching – not about punishment or shame. It is about finding ways to teach children appropriate behavior that is essential for their all round development.

What does time-out teach a child?

Scenario: Your 2 year old wants to finish watching a cartoon, but you are in a rush and need to go out… quickly. He gets completely distressed and starts protesting; mum/dad becomes stressed and angry and starts rushing the child – thoughts racing through the parent/s mind may be: “he is so awkward… why does he always do this when I am in a hurry”. The child gets even more distressed – partly because he wants to watch his cartoon, but also because he does not like making the most important person in his life angry. Shouting and yelling starts with little listening or talking (this is what we can a ‘no cycle’ of communication). Then, a tantrum starts and he starts to hit and kick. You’ve read in books and been told by other parents that this is when you use the ‘naughty step’ or ‘time out’.

What would a time-out teach him?

- your preferences are not important

- your feelings are not important

- it is wrong to feel disappointment that you want to watch your TV programme

- negative emotions are wrong and you should suppress them

- When you have a hard time – you are on your own

- Making mistakes is bad and wrong

And most importantly… rejection!

Interestingly, in a recent brain scan study relational pain (pain caused by isolation during punishment) was found to look the same as physical abuse. So, is alone in the corner the best place for your child?

Children (well people in general) have a profound need to connect and belong; this is even more so when we are going through hardship. When we are distressed we need (and want) to be soothed by those closest to us – who’s closer than a child’s parents? For most children, being told they can’t do something or finishing something sooner than they want is hardship! Misbehaviour is often a cry for help to calming down and connect – as developing the ability to self-soothe is something that develops throughout childhood.

So what can you do instead?

Firstly, prepare your child beforehand; in this situation, letting them know that in X amount of time they will soon need to stop. And remind them every few minutes until it is time to go. Using an object to represent where they are going or what they are going to do may help.

And once they get upset use what the field of child psychology is calling it – “Time-in”.


his involves, forging a loving connection by teaching them how to calm themselves down. This can be through:

- using words such as “I can see you’re very upset”

- let them know that they can do this again later – “you can watch some more cartoons when we get back”.

- giving them a cuddle

- using soft, gentle language

- using distraction

“But isn’t that spoiling them?” so many parents ask.

Its important that you don’t give in, but rather you acknowledge their feelings and help them calm down to reflect on their behavior and think of solutions to the problem. Reflection is helped by a loving and caring relationship – not in isolation.

Source: Siegle, D.J. and Payne Bryson, T. (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.



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