Why you need to stop giving your kids 'digital heroin'
Why We Need to Stop Giving Kids Time-Outs
Timing, they say, is everything.
I was born in 1969, around the time when spanking was starting to get a bad rap and time-outs were being touted as a way parents could still put their foot down, but gently. Which is just what my parents did. Whenever I was "throwing a fit" my parents would tell me that I could act however I liked, just as long as I did it in my room.
And off I was sent.
My guess is they were doing their best to parent from an enlightened place. After all, my feelings were welcome and certainly no one was spanking me. I was simply being given the time I obviously needed to cool down and when I was ready to be civilized, I could rejoin the family.
Alone in my room, I'd scream louder and longer to prove just how distraught I was. Even when I was totally spent, I'd stay put to punish them in the only way I knew how: by depriving them of my company. Alas, no one seemed to care. Venturing back out was always painful. Everyone acted as if nothing had happened — "Hi, honey!" — so I did my best to act as if I hadn't just ridden a scary emotional rollercoaster all alone.
It's not surprising then, some 30 years later when I became a mom and would overhear a parent threaten or give a time out, that I'd have an intense, visceral response. While I could certainly identify with the frustrated parent — Who couldn't? Parenting is hard! — I'd also deeply empathize with the child.There's got to be a better way!I'd lament to myself. What did surprise me, however, was when, at my daughter's 18-month wellness check-up, her doctor informed me, "Now's the time to start using time outs when she misbehaves. I suggest one minute for every year. Even if she won't stay put, ignore her for the full time. She'll learn."Who died and made him a relationship expert?I wondered but said nothing.
How, I needed to know,do other experts weigh in on time outs?
I turned to the internationally renowned Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and his colleague Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, because they're experts in the field of interpersonal neurobiology which is the study of how relationships and the brain interact to shape our mental lives. They explain, "Time-outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they've done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them."
In fact, Dr. Siegel, Dr. Bryson, and other experts report that time-outs can leave children feeling rejected, unworthy of love, and genuinely scared. This is because, as Dr. Laura Markham explains, time outs can trigger the universal fear of abandonment.
Here's why: As children, we are utterly dependent upon caregivers for food, shelter and nurture. In order tofeelsafe, we need to know unequivocally that they will care for us and not leave us — no matter what. If we sense the connection isn't solid — which a time out is bound to do — we can react as if our very survival is at stake. While our parents know they'd never let anything happen to us, we don't know that. Why? Because not only wouldn't they let something happen, they're causing it to happen.
Perhaps you're thinkingNot my kid! I've put her in plenty of time-outs and she's fine.I believe you. But, unfortunately, detached cooperation isn't necessarily a good thing. Therapist Susan Stiffelman is particularly concerned when parents report a child doesn't seem bothered by being sent away. In those cases, she explains, "…it's crucial that parents heal the damaged connection and restore trust, while creating a climate for their child to express pain, hurt or anger."
When considering methods of discipline, Dr. Siegel asks parents to consider how they might play out in a child's future relationships. Personally speaking, despite years of therapy, I continue to suffer from a fear of abandonment in a remarkably text book way. If someone needs space, or even if they just move, it can trigger me to have compulsive thought patterns and behaviors that ultimately push people further away thus confirming my subconscious belief that I am not lovable. Recovery is slow and takes concerted effort.
So, what can we do instead of sending our kids away?
Step #1: Be a first responder.
When our kids are behaving unacceptably, we're like first responders to an accident: there to help, not judge. Imagine a paramedic screaming at a drunk driver who has multiple fractures, "I'm not going to help you. You deserve this! You should never drink and drive!"
Step #2: Signal acceptance.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do when your child is acting out is to let them know you still love them. Anything like, "I can see you're having a rough time, and I want to help" can signal to them that a confident, competent grown-up is on the scene.
Step #3: Soothe.
Before children can think about their behavior or problem solve, they need to be calm. Every child is soothed differently. For some, just signaling our acceptance helps. Others respond to being physical comforted whereas others may need space, knowing we're close by when they are ready to talk. Some need a good cry. And some need to suck their thumbs or snuggle with a blanket. Sometimes just naming how they're feeling hits the spot, "You're furious because it doesn't seem fair. You were patiently waiting and she just cut the line."
Step #4: Problem solve and be creative.
Just because we're grown-ups who are annoyed, embarrassed or mad, doesn't mean the way we want our kids to behave is theonlyviable solution. There are many ways to solve a problem. Let's say our kids aren't sitting quietly at a nice restaurant. Instead of threatening a time out, we can bring in coloring books or an action figure to play with. Or let them play outside until the food is served. Or we change the conversation to a topic they would find engaging. Or we may realize they're simply too young for such a grown-up environment.
I get the appeal of time outs. Unfortunately, a one-size fits solution can never work. Humans are complicated, and each of us is unique. The reason a child is acting a certain way may be as obvious as someone grabbed her toy and she's mad, or it may be more complicated. Maybe dad has been out of town and the child misses him, worries about him, and feels left behind, so takes her feelings out on mom. Parenting is not a science, it's an art form. One that benefits from sensitivity and a profound respect for the child as an individual with his own valid experience. It also requires patience, a passing understanding of how the brain works, and some serious trial and error.
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