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Are Timeouts Harmful? Psychologists Weigh In

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The concept of timeouts is one that's been under fire lately, especially within groups of millennial parents. Timeouts are often knocked as being a lazy, isolating, ineffective way to discipline your little ones, and the truth is, when used in an inappropriate manner, they can be. So, are timeouts harmful? Some may think so, but according to experts, when implemented in an age-appropriate way, timeout can be an extremely powerful tool in helping kids learn self-regulation and emotional awareness. The difference is entirely dependent on how you put them in place within your household.

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in child and family therapy, tells Romper that timeouts can have very different implications based on whether you approach it with a punishment mentality or discipline mentality. "Discipline is about teaching," he says, "whereas punishment is about presenting something negative, which often does not serve to teach very well." Bernstein believes that it is very important that timeouts are not presented in a shaming manner that shuts children down. Rather, timeouts should give children the opportunity to learn about their choices, their behavior, and their emotions.

Family Coach and columnist Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., agrees. "Timeout isn’t a punishment," she tells Romper. "It’s a restart button." The goal of an effective timeout is to calm the child down and diffuse their anger. It is also a way for you, as a parent, to take a breath and re-group.

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In fact, parents can be the biggest example to their children of how to properly execute a timeout, suggests Barbara Harvey, early childhood expert and parenting coach at Parents, Teachers, and Advocates, Inc. In her practice, she encourages parents to narrate the timeout process as they work through it themselves, as it's important for children to see the self-regulation process in action.

"When a parent is stressed or in need of a break," Harvey says to Romper, "they need to say out loud why they are stressed and that they need a timeout to relax and re-group. Then they can go to a quiet place where their kids can see them, and do something calming, like read a book, listen to music, or take a few deep breaths." When you're done with your break, and in a calmer state of mind, you can return to what you were doing, and mention how much that timeout helped you.

Let's be honest — everybody needs a break sometimes. Recognizing when you need to remove yourself from a situation, how to de-escalate your own behavior and emotions, and being able to re-join the world when ready are all tremendous life skills that can be taught through the use of timeouts. And, one of the best ways to do so is to change the association of the word, "timeout" (or "break," or whatever you choose to use in your household), from something negative to something positive.

Cassandra De Souza, a child and educational psychologist from the U.K., insists on the importance of conversation as a part of the timeout process. "The emotions and feelings the child is feeling are possibly overwhelming, challenging, and difficult," she says in an interview with Romper. "They absolutely need to know it's not OK to hurt others or damage things, but they also need to be supported in order to manage their difficult feelings, calm themselves, and self-regulate."

Use language and phrases that support and hold your child emotionally, De Souza suggests. "I can see you feel hurt/upset, and I know this is hard," and "it's OK to feel upset angry/annoyed, but it's not OK to hit/throw," can go a long way in making your little one feel understood and reassured.

Timeouts can teach vital life skills, like self and emotional awareness. But, in order to do so, they have to be implemented with an approach that includes learning, understanding, and growth. "Parents and teachers need to model and support prosocial behavior during play," adds Pearlman, "instead of relying simply on timeouts."

In our home, we refer to timeouts as breaks, and the timeout place of choice is the kids' play tent, furnished with a cozy rug, light blanket, and a kid-sized arm chair set next to a stack of books. We try to all take breaks when we need, and though the kids sometimes need to be encouraged (or told) when they need a break, the option for alone time is always available. To be honest, when I'm feeling personally overwhelmed, or at the brink of frustration, being able to say to the kids, "I need a break," and retreat to the tent for a few minutes has saved us all from being subjected to unnecessary yelling. So when it comes to timeouts, don't knock it until you try it.