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Are Timeouts Just Brain Spankings?

Timeouts aren't as harmful as spanking and yelling, but that doesn't mean they're good for children's developing brains.

Timeouts became popular among parents looking for ways to punish children when spanking went out of style. Research shows that briefly ostracizing kids can be effective when done the right way and — importantly for parents — it’s neither a draconian nor a complicated punishment. However, psychotherapist and author Tina Payne Bryson says that there’s a largely unspoke problem with time outs: Parents use them to manage their own emotional disregulation rather than to steer their child’s behavior.

Beyond, who is a mother of three and coauthor of No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, suspects that, if dolled out haphazardly or selfishly, timeouts can actually have lasting impact on children’s developing brains. Bryson argues that neurological research suggesting that kids’ brains respond similarly to physical pain and rejection is broadly indicate of the potential for damage. That said, she’s not anti-timeout.

“If timeout is a tool that helps a parent not hit or hurt or abuse their child, then it’s a wonderful tool,” Bryson explains.

Bryson spoke to Fatherly about why parents may want to retire the practice or refine their approach.  

If timeouts and the brain have not been studied directly, what conclusions can we really draw about how kid’s experience rejection in those situations and the potential effects on their developing brains?

Children are unique and some children get very disregulated in timeout and others don’t.  Some kids can regulate easily in quiet by themselves while other kids need someone else to co-regulate with them. Additionally, the impact of timeouts depends on how timeouts are executed.  If parents are screaming and send their children to their room or putting them in the naughty chair and doing it punitively, that’s different than if parents are respectfully and calmly asking their child to take some time to calm themselves down and take a break, it’s a very different experience for the child. There is not just one answer here.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, behavior, and parenting.

The science of neuroplasticity shows that what we give attention to activates and fires neurons which then wire together.  So if we regulate in the wake of misbehavior, kids start to learn to do that for themselves. But we could also help them talk about their feelings and how they might behave differently next time or make things right. That way, children develop the skills adults use to regulate themselves, including reflection.

Why do you suspect so many parents use timeouts as a disciplinary tactic rather than as an emotional learning tool? What precisely is wrong with this approach.

Timeouts became a popular alternative for parents who didn’t want to spank so they are used liked spanking. The problem is that most parents use timeouts punitively and when the parent is reactive—that can often escalate the child’s reactiveness and it doesn’t do as much to build skills so the child has a better option for the next time as does a time in.

The way timeouts are administered by parents sounds like it matters a great deal. Can you explain why?

If parents are screaming and send their children to their room or putting them in the naughty chair versus if parents are respectfully and calmly asking their child to take some time to calm themselves down, it’s a very different experience for the child.  

Calm, empathetic timeouts. Saying “I can see you’re having such a hard time and having a hard time listening, why don’t you take a few minutes to go to your calm area that we made and see if you can calm your body down. I will check on you in a few minutes and we will figure it out together,” is far better than yelling, and hugely better than spanking. We have to remember that the purpose of discipline is to teach, and kids are only effective learners when their nervous system detects safety and they are emotionally regulated, so any discipline technique that increases dysregulation in our children is counterproductive for discipline.  

For parents who have utilized timeouts in the past, what can they do now?

All parents have disciplined optimally and all parents have made mistakes disciplining.  We’re usually doing our best, but moving forward, we can start shifting to focus on the mind behind the behavior, tuning into the child’s experience and providing connection and empathy while we enforce boundaries.  We will always have ruptures, but the important part is that we repair with our children when we make mistakes and get reactive.  We can be gentle with ourselves, forgive ourselves, and model for our children growth and self-compassion.  We can even say to our children “What has been happening when you are not listening has not felt good to me and I don’t think it’s felt good to you either, so we’re going to do things differently now.  We’re going to try something new.”