Psychotherapist says 'time outs' for children may do more harm than good

Schafer says stressed-out parents tend to overuse the discipline strategy, which often leads to even bigger problems.

Alyson Schafer tells CBC Saskatoon that the strategy is often 'overused'

Psychotherapist Alyson Schafer says "time outs" for children may do more harm than good. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)

Sending children to their rooms may not lead to the results parents seek, psychotherapist and parenting author Alyson Schafer told Saskatoon Morning host Leisha Grebinski. 

She said 'time outs' first became popular when parents tried to use them in place of spankings or corporal punishment.

"Where we see it getting overused is when we're using a 'time out' for every single thing," said Schafer​.

"Where kids are in their rooms for hours, where parents are holding onto the doorknob because there's no lock on the door and the kid is fighting to get out, it can escalate into just such a war." 

Encourages safety over punishment

Schafer pointed to the prison system and noted isolating a person socially is considered very punitive.

Where kids are in their rooms for hours, where parents are holding onto the doorknob because there's no lock on the door and the kid is fighting to get out, it can escalate into just such a war.- Alyson Schafer

"The style and manner in which parents actually implement 'time-outs' can wildly vary across situations," she said.

Schafer said with her own pre-schoolers, she emphasized the need to remain safe.

"I would just simply say we need to feel safe in our house so that means no hitting, no throwing things, no biting. If you can be with us and be in the group and be safe, you're welcome to be with us. But if we feel that you're making us unsafe by your behaviour, then you'll have to go somewhere else."

She said 'time-outs' do not have to involve a child being sent to his room. Sitting it out, or physically moving to the side of the room is often enough. Rather than a prescribed number of minutes, children should be told to come back when they feel calm.

Schafer also said adults should not change the house rules based on their own emotional response at the time. Remaining calm in the face of meltdowns helps children regulate their own feelings.

Parents shouldn't fear discipline

She also warned parents not to be afraid of enforcing boundaries.

"The pendulum of parenting has swung so far in the other direction now that parents are terribly afraid to discipline their kids at all," she said. "We've got a whole generation of kids like anxious wild children. They rule the house."

She advised parents to cut themselves some slack. Don't try to tackle every family issue at once. Instead, pick one burning issue to deal with at a time.

"Active listening is a really great way to help a child calm themselves down because a lot of this is about emotional regulation," Schafer said. 

When adults acknowledge the child's heightened emotional state and try to see things from the child's perspective, outcomes often improve.

"If we can get them to talk, they might share with us why something is so unjust and we have the opportunity to correct it."


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