Is time-out better than the naughty step?

Nov 04, 2020
Child sitting on the naughty step

 So is ‘Time-out’ any better than the ‘Naughty step’? 

Firstly, I am against the naughty step for a number of reasons...

It gives the child the label ‘naughty’ and kids live up to a negative label. Even if you describe it as ‘naughty behaviour’ what they hear is ‘I’m a naughty girl/boy’ which you don’t want them to feel about themselves.

The vast majority of kids won’t actually stay on the step when you leave them there, so then you’ve got an extra problem. Not only are you trying to make them repent about what they’ve done but you have to try and force them to stay on the step as well.

When children misbehave, it is driven by an emotion - you may not understand what that emotion is and it can be so dumbfounding.  Why do they seem, out of the blue, to do the opposite to what they’ve been asked?  But an emotion will be there. So if you don’t address the emotion behind the behaviour in some way, you miss the opportunity to help your child. The other part is that a child who feels heard and understood is so much more likely to reflect on what they’ve done and say sorry or make amends. 

I have an example of this – when my son Nico was small, I took him to the science museum and at the exit I bought him a small astronaut made of soft squashy material.  Later that day at home he brought me the astronaut broken in half and told me he didn’t really want it anyway. I was so upset. I felt he’d been deliberately destructive and ungrateful and I told him how upset I was.

When I later recounted what had happened, it was suggested to me that ‘he was probably just really curious about how far it would bend and when it broke he felt embarrassed but didn’t know how to explain it so he said he didn’t care'.  So behind the behaviour was curiosity and embarrassment when he made a mistake. If I had put him on the naughty step, it would have solved nothing. What we did do once I’d realised what had happened was sit and chat about it. I said I was sorry I got so cross, that I thought he was probably curious and then disappointed he’d broken his toy. He started to cry and said he was really sad and sorry he’d broken it. We also talked about the need to be careful with our things and it was a great moment which I would have completely missed if I hadn’t had the chat about what had happened. Getting support and ideas from others can be so helpful, can’t it?

So time-out – anything wrong with that? I think you need to use time-out carefully. If it is done in anger or in order to punish or shame the child, it is dangerous. That ignores what was driving the behaviour and if you punish you may never find out, plus a child who has been punished thinks they are bad. They resent the punishment and don’t want to accept responsibility or say sorry. If you use time-out as punishment, it gives the child the message that there’s something wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with them, it is our job to help them to learn how to regulate their emotions and express their needs verbally rather than through behaviour.

When time-out can be used effectively is if you go with your child in order to help them calm down. You can sit with them, help them to breathe, give them a hug. I know this can be really difficult if they are carrying on being really challenging but if you can stay calm yourself and help them through it, it will pay off. Being in a different place with you helps them calm down much quicker and then be able to realise what they’d done wrong.

So next time your child misbehaves, try thinking about what might be driving it rather than jumping to criticism or over-reacting to it and doing or saying things you might regret. This isn’t always possible as we are only human but it is worth a try.

If you would like some ideas on how to react when your child misbehaves then download my FREE booklet 10 Tried-and-Tested Solutions for Managing Tantrums and Mood Swings


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