Why Time Out and Punishment Don’t Work
Forget what you think you know about good parenting. Punishment? It may be effective, but probably not the best way to change behavior. Time Out? It may by useful if you need a minute to gather your wits, but doesn’t do much for your child. Taking away privileges, toys or technology? There are better strategies that yield more satisfying results.
Dr. Barbara Sorrels, former Oklahoma State University Early Childhood professor and founder of the Tulsa non-profit Connected Kids, has been a student of children’s behavior for the past 40 years, continuously asking, “What is the nature of the child?” Classroom management – behavior – was always the number one issue for her students and, of course, any parent who has experienced a toddler’s tantrum or a teen’s lack of cooperation would love to know the best way to handle that behavior.
In her experience, Sorrels knew that certain strategies worked. As she began to study research in brain development and the way it relates to children’s development and behavior, she could see why those strategies worked. “What I knew in my gut was now backed up by science,” she said.
Her fascination with children’s brains and behavior, especially of children who had suffered trauma, neglect or abuse, led Sorrels to train at Texas Christian University’s (TCU) Institute of Child Development. She also studied the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an author, educator and expert in child trauma who has assisted numerous communities after trauma such as the Columbine School shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and Sandy Hook Elementary. Dr. Perry, a senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, incorporates child development and neurobiology to identify the causes of problematic behavior, and then develops strategies to help change it. At the invitation of Sorrels, Dr. Perry recently did a presentation in Tulsa to a group of parents and professionals on the science behind childhood trauma.
Trauma and a Child’s Brain
Put simply, Dr. Perry looks at what happens to a child’s brain as the result of trauma. Trauma can be acute, such as experiencing a tornado, or complex, such as chronic abuse at the hands of a parent. Dr. Perry describes a child’s “acute response to trauma” in this way:
Each traumatic event has a beginning and an end. As the traumatic event begins, the individual will move along the arousal continuum. Their internal state will shift from calm to vigilance, alarm, fear and then terror. The descriptive labels – calm, vigilance, alarm, fear, terror – merely designate various points along this continuum and are common descriptive terms for the emotional state corresponding to various stages of the response to threat.
A child who has suffered trauma is at a heightened agitated state, even in normal situations, such as a classroom. A teacher sternly admonishing the child to sit in her seat may result in the child falling to the floor in a fetal position. Already at a higher level of stress, the child’s behavior becomes automatic. “A frightened child doesn’t focus on the words; they attend to the threat related signals in their environment – the non-verbal signs of communication such as eye contact, facial expression, body posture or proximity to the threat. With increased threat a child moves along the arousal continuum from vigilance through to terror,” writes Dr. Perry.
As the threatened child’s body reacts physically, “the child tunes out all non-critical information.” At that point, the child may experience “hyperarousal” (flight or fight) or “dissociation” where the child withdraws from the outside world (detached, numb, compliant, ‘mini-psychosis’, fainting), or both.
While Dr. Perry is describing a child who has experienced extreme trauma, most parents can identify a time when their child just didn’t appear to be hearing them. (How often have you, as a parent, said, “You’re not listening to me! How many times do I have to tell you….!”) Dr. Perry asserts that before a child can hear and respond to a parent or a teacher or a caregiver, the child’s brain must be in a calm state.
Getting to calm requires that the parents or caregivers change their behavior before they can help children change theirs.
It’s About Creating Relationships
In his presentation, Dr. Perry said that consistent support from a calm adult or community of adults can help the child move back down the continuum to a calm state. Providing the child with small, manageable “doses” of stress will help the child find success. For example, a child might have a melt-down if he is told to “get ready for school.” Instead, a parent might say, “Let me help you pack your lunch today,” and build from there. The parent calmly works alongside the child.
Sorrels uses Dr. Perry’s strategies when making presentations to foster parents, adoptive parents and those who work with children who have been exposed to trauma.
“Three years ago, a friend that was doing foster care asked if I could come talk to parents about these [foster] children,” she said. “Twenty-five people showed up. They were the hungriest audience, and we ended up having 10 nights of training. [The foster parents] said it was the first training they have had that works. The next semester, 82 people showed up for 10 weeks.”
Dramatic change happened in both the parents and the children.
Sorrels described one of her strategies. “Trauma victims struggle with self-regulation,” she explained. “They may be language-delayed and don’t have a lot of inner awareness.”
If a child is throwing a tantrum, Sorrels encourages the child to use words to describe feelings.
“We’ll draw an outline of the child on a big piece of paper,” she said. “Then we’ll ask, ‘Where do you feel it when you’re mad?’ and the child might color his hands red. And we’ll say, ‘Where do you feel fear?’ I always have butterfly stickers ready because children often describe it as a feeling of butterflies in their stomach.”
Sorrels said that what is good for kids affected by trauma is good for any child.
“The strategies are just good parenting,” she said. “It’s just learning more of a relationship-based way of parenting. Learning to respond versus reacting.”
Responding requires that the parent or adult caregiver be in a calm state rather than a reactive state when dealing with the child. “Our goal is appropriate behavior,” Sorrels said, “to walk away still having a sense of connection, changed behavior and a contented child.”
While punishment may change behavior for the short-term, it isn’t effective in achieving long-term positive brain development. “When you’re changing behavior, you’re changing the brain.” Sorrels pointed out that parents can get children to do what they want through “control and punishment, but it incites kids to rebellion” rather than to connection and calm.
Rhythmic activities are often calming activities, so she may suggest that the child, or both the parent and child, bounce a basketball or dance in order to get to calm. Once both the child and the parent are in a calm state, the child is ready for the parent to guide him to change behavior.
Attachment Parenting and the Circle of Security
“Attachment is the best-kept secret in America,” Sorrels said, defining “attachment” as “a strong emotional bond that is enduring over time – someone who assumes responsibility for the wellbeing of another.”
Sorrels describes the attachment of a mother to her baby. The mother learns to “read” the infant’s cues, the cries that indicate hunger, boredom, distress, and becomes attuned to the child’s inner emotional state. The mother responds to her baby’s physical and emotional needs. The child then learns trust and bonds with the mother or caregiver.
As the child grows, the circle of security gradually grows, too. For example, a toddler at the park may venture out, but look back, making eye contact with her mother for approval. The mom encourages her, and the circle widens. Sorrels said that attachment also means being attuned to knowing when your teen wants to talk, or knowing when your child needs to regulate. It’s a dance of letting go and pulling back in at every age. It’s giving children doses of manageable challenges as they increase their confidence and independence.
The parent is learning to respond to the child by stopping and thinking through actions rather than reacting.
“Determine what a child needs,” Sorrels said, “and you’ll have the strength of attachment. When things go wrong, your first line of thinking should be, ‘I need to strengthen this relationship.’”
For example, Sorrels said a mom in one of her classes had a 6-year-old boy who was having a melt-down, and the mom said, “Do you need a hug?” The hug changed the behavior and at the same time was creating a positive attachment between the mother and her son.
“I think people don’t know any other way [than punishment],” Sorrels said. “Putting more tools in your toolbox gives you more options.”
Many parents will punish children by “grounding” them. Maybe you’ve told the child to clean her room, but she hasn’t done it, so you take away priviledges, such as going out with friends or attending a birthday party. A better strategy than punishing the child might be to work alongside her to clean the room, or negotiate with a teenager to develop a solution that works for both the child and the parent. The result is that the room gets cleaned, and the relationship stays intact.
Sorrels said that Time Out isn’t effective in building relationships for the same reason that punishment is ineffective. “We send a child to Time Out because the child is disregulated. So I send you by yourself to ‘get your act together before you can talk to me.’?” Sorrels said one mom sent her foster child to his room for Time Out. She took everything out of the bedroom except his mattress, which he defecated on. “He didn’t know what to do in there,” Sorrels said. “The foster mom knew he was an artistic child, so rather than sending him to his bedroom the next time, she put a pile of newspapers by a wastebasket and told him that he could tear them up to get his anger out or he could make something. He made a huge origami sculpture.”
Other strategies that are better than Time Out might be asking the disregulated child to bounce a basketball for 10 minutes to “get rid of your mad,” or say, “You sit by me while I do the dishes and tell me when you’re ready to talk.”
All of these strategies focus on what is going on in the child’s brain, and they invite positive attachment between the adult and the child.
Critics might say that children need to be held accountable — how are they going to learn without punishment? Sorrels uses the example of teaching a child to ride a bike. “You would think I was out of my mind if I tried to force you or beat you to do this,” she said. “Children learn from models, other people, visual cues. When they’re learning new behavior, just like learning the new skill of riding a bike, they’re changing their brain.”
The work may be slower and more incremental with children who have suffered trauma than those who have not. A child who has experienced trauma has a brain that is already on high alert and moves quickly to fear or terror. A neglected child never got the rocking, holding, touching and responsiveness from a caring adult that creates well-integrated sensory processing and attachment. As a result, that child may struggle with balance, or not have a clear idea of where her body is in space. She may inadvertently sit on top of another child or spill six glasses of milk during a meal because she doesn’t know where to sit or how hard to hold onto something. Some of these children may seek constant stimulation by rocking or turning somersaults, or they may avoid movement. Sorrels points out that punishing a child who doesn’t know what to do with his body or why she’s spilling milk is pointless.
Every Child At-Risk
While there are millions of children who suffer from abuse in the United States, Sorrels believes that 80 percent of all children are at risk of what she calls “relational poverty.”
“Most parents don’t understand attachment or child development,” she said. “We have a culture that’s preoccupied. The loss experienced from divorce impacts young children. Parents are preoccupied with technology. The bigger our houses get, the more we stay inside. Neighbors don’t know each other. The way we do church doesn’t integrate the generations. Quality childcare is very expensive, and our country doesn’t support families.”
All of these issues pull at American families, moving them away from the connectedness that children need for healthy development, and moving them toward the “relational poverty” that Sorrels describes.
“We have a child-illiterate culture,” she said. “It boils down to the fact that we’ve lost sight of the needs of children. Our kids know where they are in the totem pole of our priorities.”
Sorrels believes in helping all those who work with children understand the nature of children, how they think, how they develop and how their brains work.
“One thing we talk about is how children are resilient,” she said. “They are not resilient. They are malleable. Some become resilient based on the relationships they have. They have one person in their life who connects with them. But they are not inherently resilient.”
But Sorrels wants parents to know that any effort they make to connect and understand their children is time well spent.
“Research shows that we only have to get it right 30 percent of the time,” Sorrels said. “It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being authentic.”
Connected Kids. Dr. Barbara Sorrels. www.connectedkids.com. Evidence-based training and resources for all children and their parents or caregivers, whether or not the children have been exposed to trauma.
Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma (www.gryphonhouse.com) by Barbara Sorrels, EdD
The Parent Child Center of Tulsa. www.parentchildcenter.org. 918.599.7999. Child abuse and neglect prevention through parent, child and community education.
Family & Children’s Services. www.fcsok.org. Classes, counseling, family support and more. 918.587.9471.
CALM Center: Counseling & Recovery Services of Oklahoma. Crsok.org. A safe and caring place for youth ages 10-17 to receive immediate support, assessment and stabilization for an emotional, behavioral or substance abuse crisis, 24/7. 918.394.2256.
CAPES. www.capesinc.org. Child and Adolescent Program Enrichment Services. Collaborative care recommendations to families for children and adolescents with complex medical, psychological and developmental problems. 918.747.8282.
SPROUTS Development. Sproutsdevelopment.com. Information and resources on child development. Provides free online developmental screening. 918.699.4250.
TherapyWorks. www.therapyworkstulsa.com. Pediatric, occupational, physical, speech and nutrition therapy. 918.663.0606.
Dr. Bruce Perry. childtrauma.org