Time Out or Time In?

Time outTime out and the naughty step are incredibly popular parenting methods, recommended by everyone from TV parenting experts to health visitors alike. The idea is simple: if your child is doing something you don’t like then ignoring the behaviour and punishing the child by removing him to a step, corner or similar for a few minutes will ultimately extinguish the behaviour. This is supposed to work for two reasons – firstly: it is presumed children only ‘act up’ to get our attention, therefore if we ignore the behaviour we don’t like they will stop acting that way and secondly: it presumes that punishment makes children consider their wrongdoings and resolve to be better next time.

Only the idea is wrong.

Firstly, the assumption that children misbehave to get our attention is both right and wrong. Children don’t deliberately ‘do naughty things’ to make us stop and give them our time. Children have a different brain structure to an adult and in most cases they behave in a certain way because they cannot stop themselves from doing so. Children are however in great need of our attention, but more than our attention, they want a connection with us. It is true therefore that a child whose behaviour is regressing is probably a child who is crying out for more time and attention from their caregiver. What they are in need of however is positive time and attention, hugs, conversation, somebody to listen to them, somebody to help calm the big feelings they are feeling, somebody to make them feel safe and secure. The attention they get from ‘time out’ and ‘naughty steps’ is anything of the sort.

They don’t need ‘Time Out’, they need ‘Time In’. We should see their behaviour as their way of saying “mum, dad – I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, I can’t stop doing this and I need your help to calm me and help me to control myself”. Time out is exactly the very opposite of the response they need from us.


Secondly, the assumption that punishing a child (in this case by withdrawing your attention or removing them from something or someone they enjoy) will result in them thinking about what they have done wrong and resolving to change their behaviour in the future. In fact, some ‘experts’ rename time out or the naughty step “thinking time” or “the thinking chair”. This idea is however even more ridiculous than the first one, that of ignoring bad behaviour.

Under the age of three the neocortex (the frontal section) of the brain is exceptionally immature, the neural connections are not yet fully formed and as such we may consider it grossly underdeveloped. This segment of the brain is the most mature section, it differentiates adults from children and intelligent mammals – such as humans – from our less intelligent cousins in the animal world. The frontal cortex of the brain is the segment that is responsible for impulse control, emotional self regulation and critical, analytical and hypothetical thought. In lay man’s terms, if this section of the brain is not fully matured (as is the case in babies, toddlers, preschoolers and many early school years) we should not expect the child to be able to 1. control their own behaviour, 2. calm themselves down, 3. really think about what they have done and the implications of their actions or 4. motivate themselves to ‘do better’ next time.

A little bit of simple neuropsychology proves, without doubt, that time out and the naughty step are completely pointless. Sure, they may provoke a reaction of a more quiet and withdrawn child, but this response is produced because the child has been conditioned to internalise their emotions (i.e: not let us know how they are feeling). At first glance this might be a good thing – at least for the caregivers who now have a quieter child, however for the child it is potentially highly damaging. Internalising emotions in early childhood can result in the child being unable to express their emotions in the tween and teen years, leaving them more prone to self harm, eating disorders and depression. They may also externalise these emotions at a later point, when they have reached an almost toxic level to keep inside – resulting in violent ‘lashing out’ behaviour such as bullying. Of course, this may not happen, but both are a possibility when you ‘teach’ your child to not express their emotions at a very young age. Perhaps the most salient though is thinking about your parental goals – do you really want to teach your child to not talk to you or tell you how they really feel for fear of the repurcussions if they do?

A baby, toddler or preschooler cannot talk to you in depth about their feelings, they can only do this through their behaviour, but an older child, tween and teen can. One of the best ways you can ensure a close and open relationship with your child as they grow is to ‘listen’ to them in their early years. ‘Naughty behaviour’ is just that – just behaviour, you don’t have a ‘naughty toddler’, you have a child who is unable to control their impulses because of their immature brain structure, a child who cannot calm themselves and a child who has not yet grasped the idea of empathy. Empathy – or the understanding of other’s feelings is an advanced skill that really does not begin to emerge until after the child’s seventh birthday.

When we consider all of this we quickly understand that ‘Time Out’ or the ‘Naughty Step’ misunderstands the needs of young children and more salient – the physical and psychological development of the young child. While these techniques may seem to work in the short term, they are not ‘working’ for the reasons the experts tell us, they are not bringing about an internally motivated and long lasting change in the child and it is quite likely that usage will result in bigger, more concerning issues as the child ages.

What should you do instead? Read this article for some suggestions for coping in the longer term, and this one for coping ‘in the moment’.


By Sarah Ockwell-Smith – Our resident Baby and Toddler Expert.

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