Are Time-Outs Love Withdrawal From Our Children?

Paradise Island in the form of heart

Recently I've been reading the book Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. It's a fascinating read that offers some unique perspectives on parenting. At first, I was taken aback when I read Mr. Kohn's theory that when a child misbehaves, a forced time-out is a form of love withdrawal by the parent that can lead to anxiety and abandonment issues for children later on in life. He argues that just because time-outs seem to work doesn’t mean that we should give them.

Kohn also says although time-outs pose no physical or material harm, love withdrawal “may be more devastating emotionally than power assertion because it poses the ultimate threat of abandonment and separation.” Although the parent knows the time-out will end, the child may not. Even if the child realizes mom and dad will start speaking with him again, the child may feel anxiety about the possible loss of parental love again in the future.

There is a lot of advice about parenting out there, but I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all way to deal with the emotional complexity of each child. I believe that my older child needed time-outs as she used to get very emotional and needed to calm herself down. When she was removed from a room, I believe she spent the time calming her body and reflecting. We rarely put a time restraint on it and she came out when she was ready. I guess I will never know exactly how she perceived these time-outs, but from my perspective they were effective.

My little one, however, had a very different reaction to time-outs. She would cry and cry and the time-out made no difference. She would frantically scream, “I need you, I need you” and after a few attempted time-outs I realized that this was not beneficial for her. She did not need time to calm down. She needed love and understanding. So instead of leaving her I would stay. Sometimes we would both be quiet and other times she would talk. It was still time away from the situation but it was not time alone.

Having read this book, I do believe that she felt love withdrawal from our early attempts at time-outs. I can't say for sure that if we stuck with it my daughter would have low self esteem or anxiety; but it does lead me to the conclusion that we need to be very thoughtful about how we discipline our children. Yes, they need to learn right from wrong and be responsible for their actions, but how we teach them these lessons matters in their emotional development.

Maybe the key is to always focus on what your children need even when they are acting out. Maybe it is more about the learning than the discipline.  We all respond differently to situations and our children are no different. Maybe we must discover for ourselves the road to parenting each individual child by considering their unique needs.

After some thought, here are some options that might help you discover some effective tools for different children:

1. Try inviting them to take some time in another room so they can calm down and think about how their actions affected the ones around him or her.

2. Maybe you need to insist your child take some time but don’t impose a time limit. Tell the child you will be waiting to discuss the matter when they feel they are ready.

3. Stay in the room when your child is taking a time-out but remain silent.

4. Remove your child from the situation, and talk to your child. Maybe silence is not the path to his or her self-discovery.

5. If your child is older you can discuss your unconditional love but explain that she must spend some time reflecting on her actions or even just meditating to calm down.  Let them know you are available when they need to speak.

Trying different methods can be an effective way to discover how to promote our children’s self-esteem and understanding, as well as teaching them to take responsibility for their actions.

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