by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
For generations, parents have sought a reliable and dependable way to handle
childhood misbehavior. The most recent and popular discipline technique is
time-out. Although time-out is better than spanking, it is not an appropriate
way for parents to cope with the misbehavior of their children. Moreover, the
use of time-out can create subsequent childhood behavior problems. These problems
can affect the well-being of the child and severely strain the parent-child
Child Behavior – A Symptom
The behavior of children has a legitimate cause. Childhood behavior is determined,
for the most part, by how children feel about the current state of their physical
and psychosocial needs. Needs are strong in every child, and children are by
nature sensitive to their own needs. If one or more of their needs are not met,
children will soon feel uncomfortable.
Children will cry out when they feel uncomfortable.
An infant or toddler's cry announces feelings of frustration. These cries have
evolved as a survival mechanism. They attract parental attention. The purpose
of a cry is to obtain the kind and quality of parental love and care that will
properly attend to unmet needs, and therefore establish feelings of security
in the child. The misbehavior of older children and adolescents is a cry for
help, announcing that their needs are frustrated.
Cries and misbehavior from
children and adolescents are, in a way, very much like a sore throat, stuffed-up
nose, aching muscles, or fever. All are symptoms. All have causes. A medical
practitioner knows that when the virus or bacteria that is causing physical
symptoms is eliminated, the noxious feelings will be quelled. Similarly, when
parents correctly diagnose and provide remedies that address the needs of children
and adolescents, the symptoms of crying or misbehavior also will disappear.
frustration of important needs does not feel good at any age. However, children
can become quite upset and demanding when their needs are not met. Their often
intense outbursts stem, in part, from their dependent nature. Unlike most adults,
young children lack the ability to meet their own needs. They are physically
unable to do most self-care tasks. By nature, they also have strong emotional
needs and vulnerabilities. Moreover, unlike most adults, young children are
unable to tolerate frustration well. In addition, infants, toddlers, and many
preschool-aged children are unable to identify the frustrated needs that are
making them upset. This makes it impossible for most young children to tell
their parents what is bothering them and why they often are unable independently
to get their needs fulfilled.
When time-out is used, parents first firmly demand that their child stop
misbehaving and be quiet. The child is then usually required to go and sit
alone in a room, away from parents, and admonished not to come out of the
room until he or she is sure he or she can control his or her behavior. Being
placed in time-out prolongs the time that a child must endure the frustrated
need that caused a misbehavior. Thus, unmet normal needs become increasingly
uncomfortable as the time-out continues. Young children depend upon, want
to be with, love, and need their parents.
What exacerbates this increasingly
uncomfortable state of being frustrated is the fact that the child must be
alone, away from the parents on whom he or she must rely to meet his or her
needs. This enforced separation from his or her basic source of comfort, security,
and well-being adds considerably to the woe of a child. Moreover, being alone
in time-out can create additional disturbing feelings the child must endure.
Painful emotions such as fear and worry often develop. A frustrated child
who must sit quietly and alone in time-out frequently becomes angry. Although
the youngster dare not express this anger when in time-out, the child often
expresses it by becoming angry and defiant sometime after being released from
time-out. The practice of separating a child in time-out from parents can,
in itself, become the cause of future misbehavior because being alone and
in time-out increases the frustrations felt by a child who is already frustrated.
dilemmas and conflicts are best resolved when each individual has sufficient
opportunity to talk to and be heard by the other person. Modeling, initiating,
and practicing the process of open dialogue is essential if a youngster is
to learn healthy problem solving. Does time-out lend itself to this process?
Helping children talk about how they feel, combined with parental patience, is
required if children are to develop the ability to verbalize their feelings and
needs rather than act them out.
Lifelong Effects of Frequent Time-Out
For the frustrated and uncomfortable child, time-out offers enforced silence
and the feeling of being rejected by his or her parents. A youngster who misbehaves
and then is given time-out feels hurt. This hurt, combined with the frustration
that caused the youngster to misbehave, gives birth to anger. And discipline
practices, such as time-out, that create hurt and anger, can harm a child.
cost of being given time-out in childhood is the lesson that one should bottle
up uncomfortable emotions. Upset in time-out and unable to express distressing
feelings, youngsters desperately need to stop the painful feelings going on inside
them. To cope, children learn to ignore and/or distract themselves from the energy
of their hurt and angry feelings. Thus, children learn to repress their painful
feelings. In the process, nervous habits can emerge, including thumb sucking,
fingernail biting, hair pulling, skin scratching, tugging at clothes, self-pinching,
and many other similar behaviors. The purpose of these behaviors is to ward off
uncomfortable feelings, and in identification with their parents' criticism of
them, to punish themselves. These defense strategies serve to release anger and
cause the child to ignore uncomfortable feelings.
As a result, being unaware of
true feelings often can become a characteristic feature of a person’s
life. This reduces a person's self-awareness and can affect the quality of
life throughout an entire lifetime.
Developing the Well-Behaved Child
Parents can develop a well-behaved, self-disciplined child best by responsively
and continuously meeting their child's developmentally normal needs and drives,
by demonstrating and articulating humane values in day-to-day interactions with
their youngster, and by exposing their child to life experiences that strengthen
and reinforce these values. Troubled and spoiled children are created when parents
do not meet their child's normal needs and drives consistently and appropriately.
are the basic, normal childhood needs? If a child is physically healthy, well
nourished, satisfactorily exercised, and not tired, the youngster's physical
needs are being met. If a youngster has received sufficient and continuous satisfying
attention, affection, and recognition from parents and other adults and children
to whom the child is emotionally attached, the child's social and emotional needs
are fulfilled. If a child's normal curiosity, exploratory nature, and intrinsic
interests are regularly allowed opportunities to unfold and develop, the intellectual
needs of that child will be satisfied. When young children are given opportunities,
within a securely supportive and trustworthy environment, to become increasingly
more independent, make choices, and meaningfully participate in decision making,
their normal needs to exercise some control over their life and to express their
own will are being appropriately addressed.
It is very important for parents and
parents-to-be to learn the developmentally normal characteristics of each
stage of early human development. It also is important to recognize a virulent
myth that still exists in our society—that fully
meeting a child's needs will spoil the child. The research literature clearly
says the opposite is true. The well-disciplined child is created when parents
appropriately fulfill the needs of childhood and adolescence.
This article was published in Mothering Magazine, May-June