Do Time-Outs and Grounding Work?
Time-Outs (and grounding) work temporarily in the short-term but they don’t work well for the long-term and here is the reason:
Time-Outs and Grounding are methods of punishment.
What Do We Know About Punishment?
Punishment fuels resentment.
Punishment creates sneaky kids.
Punishment creates negative self-beliefs and/or rebellious kids.
Let’s look at two examples – one for a young child and one for a teenager:
Young Child Example – Time-Outs
Scenario: Your four-year-old child is jealous because it’s your two-year-old’s birthday and all the attention is on your two-year-old.
Behaviour of Concern: Your four-year-old dumps their food on the floor.
If you go the punishment route, you will likely…
- get mad at them
- take away a privilege
- give them a time out on a chair or “naughty step”
- send them to their room
While sitting in time-out your child…
- will likely continue to be really angry inwardly or outwardly
- be thinking even worse thoughts about their younger sibling and be wishing their sibling didn’t exist and then this would never have happened!
- be mad at you because you don’t understand how they’re feeling
- will plan what revenge will look like the next time Mom/Dad are not looking
What will your child have learned from this time-out?
- Revenge is the only way to make this fair
- I’ll be more sneaky about my revenge
- My parents don’t understand how I feel so there’s no point trying to tell them
- My parents love my younger sibling more than they love me (this is their perception from how this incident is handled)
On the other hand, you could handle this same situation by using it is an opportunity to teach emotional intelligence…
In this scenario, you use a logical consequence (the definition of consequence from the school of behavioural psychology, is whatever happens after a behaviour occurs).
You see the food get dumped on the floor and you describe what just happened.
Parent: “Oh my, you just dumped your food on the floor.”
Then you reflect on their feelings:
Parent: “You are really mad. Something is really bothering you. You are feeling really upset.”
Child angrily says: “I don’t want it to be his birthday. It’s not fair that he gets so many presents”.
Parent then validates what they heard and then helps the child identify what this big feeling is:
Parent: “Oh you wish it wasn’t your brother’s birthday and you’re feeling really jealous that he gets presents and you don’t.”
Child gives you confirmation that you’re on the right track: “Yes it’s not fair!”
Parent validates again: “You’re really mad because it just doesn’t seem fair that your brother gets all these presents. You’re feeling really jealous and wish that you were getting presents too.”
If child has calmed down enough to do some problem-solving…
Parent: “We all get big feelings sometimes and I can see why you’re so upset but it’s not okay to throw your food on the floor. This is damage to the floor and now it’s time to repair the damage. I’ll help you find some rags and you can help wipe up the food from the floor.”
(As child is only four, parent helps and trains child on how to clean up the mess on the floor.)
Later, perhaps at bed-time…
Parent recaps what happened at dinner and helps child realize that this was jealousy. They discuss what would be a better way of expressing these big feelings. Parent models how child can say “I’m so mad. It’s not fair. He gets presents and I don’t”. Parent checks that the child understands what jealousy means and explains that we all feel jealous sometimes. (This is how we build emotional intelligence – the ability to identify and manage our emotions.)
What will the child have learned from this course of action?
→ My parents do understand me
→ My parents support me with my BIG feelings
→ My parents have taught me what jealousy is
→ When I make the wrong choice, I can make amends and do the repair work
→ I can work through my big feelings of jealousy by talking about them with my parents and then the feelings don’t feel so big anymore and I realize I actually am happy to have a brother
→ I can use my words to tell people how I’m feeling
Teenager example: Grounding
Scenario and Behaviour of Concern: Your teenager stays out past curfew and comes face-to-face with their parents in the driveway as their date is dropping them back home.
If you go the punishment route, you will likely:
→ get really mad
→ ground your kid for at least a couple of weeks
→ threaten that your teen is no longer allowed to date
While storming off to her room, your child will likely:
- be planning revenge on you
- be planning how they can still see their partner and communicate with them even more
- be idealizing their partner and feeling even more attached to them now that their parents want to separate them
- vow to be more sneaky next time
- be thinking that they hate their parents
What will your teen have learned from this grounding?
- If they want to hurt me, I’ll hurt them more
- They are not the boss of me and I will get revenge
- My parents are so controlling, they have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager these days
- If they try to separate us, we’ll be inseparable
On the other hand, you could handle this situation with an unexpected consequence:
Parent: We see that you have come home past your curfew. We have been very worried. We’ll talk about this in the morning. (This gives parents time to carefully think of their consequence and the teen is left wondering what is going to happen.)
Parents: Last night we were very worried when you didn’t come home by your curfew. We were very concerned and upset when you made the choice to stay out late with your new partner. (Parents are returning responsibility to the teen).
As repair for this breaking of trust, we would like you think of how you can make amends. We also want to feel more comfortable knowing who you’re spending your evenings with, so we want you to invite your partner to have a family dinner with us.
Teen: Sorry Mom/Dad, I know I lost track of the time and I’m sorry that you were worried. I’ll make it up to you, but please don’t make them come to dinner. I actually think I’d rather you ground me than make them come to a family dinner!
Parents: We need to feel more comfortable with this situation and we will arrange a family dinner for them to attend this weekend. In the meantime, please let us know your plan for making amends and taking the steps toward rebuilding our trust. To be able to have freedoms, we need to be able to trust you.
What Will Be The Outcome of This Consequence?
Your teen will know that you care and that this is a very fair consequence.
They will most likely dread having their partner over for dinner (a logical consequence) but now you are not pushing them closer, you are just wanting to get to know this new partner – this takes away the power struggle.
You are putting the responsibility on your teen to come up with a way to make amends to you, for breaking your trust by not being home by curfew. Once the situation has calmed down, and the time has come for your teen to go out again one night, you can proactively discuss how they’re going to be sure to be home by curfew. For example, they could set an alarm on their phone, 30-45 minutes before their curfew.
This is a complete shift in parenting from the punishment days, but the current parenting research shows that when we coach our children and use logical consequences versus top-down controlling and punishing, we teach them to be more responsible and better at thinking through their choices.
Sharon Selby, MA, is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, with over 20 years’ experience counseling children and families. She is the author of the children’s book, Surfing the Worry Imp’s Wave, where you can find more information about the strategies recommended in this article. To receive her free ebook: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Your Child is Anxious, go to www.SharonSelby.com/free