I get a lot of questions around timeout, and around using effective procedures and consequences in order to shape behavior. I want to just share with you a few thoughts on timeout. First off on why so often we use timeout ineffectively. But then I also want to share one small thing that we can do that can radically change everything. First, let's look at what timeout is.
When children engage in a behavior that we find uncomfortable or that we find challenging, there is an innate response in us to take over, and to take control of the situation so everyone is safe again. But more importantly so we feel comfortable again. That's why it's very important to recognize that more often than not, when we engage in punishment procedures, we're really having a very egocentric view on the situation. Rather than considering the child's needs in the moment, we're really emphasizing our own discomfort. So that's the first thing to recognize.
But timeout ultimately is saying, "Unless I'm comfortable, I'm going to disconnect myself from you, and I am going to isolate you." You know, "Go to your room until you can be kind to your brother," right? We're basically saying, "You will be all by yourself until you can make decisions that I agree with. Now what can we do instead? Because of course we want children to be able to get along with each other, we want them to be able to problem solve and compromise, and we don't want them to be fighting or hurting each other. We want everyone to be safe.
If sending them away from the room is disconnecting, and isolating, and not considering their needs, and certainly not supporting their development, then what can we do instead? Well, the answer is actually quite simple. We offer them an opportunity to try again. So rather than saying, "Go to your room. I will not let you hit your brother that way. That is inappropriate and we do not behave that way in this house." Rather than that, we might say something along the lines of, "I can see that you're upset. Either you can try again and show me how to play the right way, or you can take a break for a little bit and calm down. Which do you want to do?" We simply offer them an opportunity to self-correct or to go calm down.
Over time with consistency, your child is going to begin to feel more and more safe. When children think I'm about to get in trouble, then guess what? Their defensive state kicks in and they go back to that midbrain. And it becomes a lot harder for them to make reasonable decisions, and to listen to what we are saying, and to process our reasoning with them.
There are so many times that children have heightened emotions and we go into these situations trying to give them a solution, trying to fix it. We have a very logical approach to behavior. Kids don't. Children have a very emotional approach to behavior. When we go into situations that are emotionally heightened and we go in with a logical brain, then there's a good chance that is going to be met with resistance and a need to defend itself. Children feel like they're being attacked when we are just trying to offer them a solution. That's why beginning with validation, beginning with a willingness to feel how they feel in the moment, to try to think how they might be thinking and what might be going through their heads, this is a very powerful way to build that bridge between the emotional brain and the logical brain. And as you can see, timeout literally removes that opportunity.
By replacing timeout with an opportunity to connect with them and for them to self correct, you are going to find that over time and with practice, your child is going to get much better at making better decisions in those difficult moments between siblings and other children.