What kind of message are we sending our children when we send them to 'time out' for an unwanted behavior? well, according to Alfie Kohn (author of 'Unconditional Parenting'), the child might perceive the isolation as their parent thinking the following:
“If you do things I don’t like, I won’t pay any attention to you. I’ll pretend you’re
not even here. If you want me to acknowledge you again, you’d better obey me.”
Is the message we want the next generation of children to receive? I hope your answer is no. Our love should not be conditional. When we ignore our children for their unwanted behaviors the message they are receiving is 'mommy and daddy only like me when I'm good'. This is not a good feeling for children to have. This feeling can prevent our children from coming to us for help when they make a mistake. This can have serious consequences when a child turns into a teenager, and the mistakes can be life threatening.
Lets say your teenager is at a party and makes some poor decisions from peer pressure. He or she should feel confident in knowing that they can call on you for help, and regardless of their poor choices, you will still love him or her. If your child is too scared to call on you, this fear can be dangerous and cause your child to not reach out for help. As a result, the child may continue their poor choices, or call on someone else instead of you, their parent.
So how do we get our children to trust us, and know that we love them unconditionally? Well, it all starts with how we parent them as young children. We need to show our children love and respect. Instead of punishing our children when they do something wrong, it's imperative to instead figure out why the child did the unwanted action in the first place, then problem solve a solution with the child. Unfortunately, some parents skip these steps and go straight to disciplining without ever figuring out why the child misbehaved in the first place. We need to get to the root issue of the problem. We should not focus on the bad behavior of the child, but focus on the 'why': Why did Billy hit Sally? What's the root issue? Is there something that could have been done to prevent the behavior? If so, what? Evaluating the situation and asking these questions can help to prevent the event from happening again. This also shows the child that their parent respects and loves them. We need to take the time to help the child solve the problem instead of making the child suffer for having a problem. We need to be sure that we're showing our unconditional love at all times, even when our children do things we don't like.
Unconditional parents see the unwanted act as a problem to be solved, an opportunity for teaching rather than for making the child suffer. Ignoring our children by sending them to time out is an example of making the child suffer for their problem.
“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” ― Jane Nelson
Many parents actually think that because they use time outs instead of spanking, that they are using a better discipline technique. They assume, that because the child is not being physically punished, there is no harm caused. This is just not true. While we can acknowledge from scientific evidence that spanking is horrible for children, time outs are as well. Although it doesn't leave physical damage, the child still suffers emotionally.
'Time out' is a popular discipline technique in which the parent separates themselves physically from their child. This is actually a form of love withdrawal. It's okay if the child wants some time alone, but to forcibly isolate a child, or ignore the child, is in fact love withdrawal. Parents might not think of it as love withdrawal, and insist that they love their child no matter what, but that doesn't matter. What really matters is how the child interprets the message of being ignored or being sent to time out. We must be conscious of how things seem in the child's perspective. Alfie Kohn discusses in his book that even young adults who experienced love-withdrawal by their parents, are still likely to be unusually anxious. Kohn also mentions in his book that love withdrawal “may be more devastating emotionally than power assertion because it poses the ultimate threat of abandonment or separation.”
The results of love withdrawal
A friend of mine recalled how love withdrawal from her mother made her feel as a child:
"I liked the specific example of ignoring our children when they did something we don't approve of. My mom used to do that to me. She would just turn up the radio really loud (which was a double insult because I knew she didn't really like music, but she would rather listen to that than hear me), or just stop talking completely to me. It was very hurtful."
My friend was able to recognize how this love withdrawal effected her, and acknowledged that she needs to do better for her own children. As parents it's normal for us to get frustrated or upset, it's how we channel that frustration that is important. It's okay to step back when our emotions get overwhelming. We don't want to do something we regret, like yell at our children in the moment of them doing some unwanted behavior. So we need to stop, rationalize, and think about what's important. When we take this moment to pause and collect ourselves before addressing our children we can then communicate with them in a more calm and rational way. its important though that this moment is short, so that our children do not perceive it as us ignoring them.
My friend acknowledged this as well. She said: "I have to be careful when I need a little break from my daughter, so I do not yell at her, like taking some calm breaths. I need to be careful not to let that go on so long that I am actually completely disconnecting and ignoring her. She feels ignored easily, and it is easy for me to do that."
This is so important. We need to make sure we do not disconnect from our children, especially when they are having a hard time.
She also said, "For me, I do need to give myself a timeout occasionally, just take a minute to breath, but I think sometimes the intent turns into just not wanting to deal with the issue and tuning out, breaking connection. Then it becomes more about ignoring and punishment by isolation, at least mentally because I may still be in the room. It is the intent behind how I handle myself or the heart of the matter. Plus when my own mom tuned me out and ignored me she just stopped talking. I remember the feelings of abandonment. When I catch myself doing that I know it is more than me trying to take a calm breath and has crossed the line. I try to make it a point to talk out loud a little. 'Mommy is feeling frustrated and I need to help myself. I am going to take a few calm breaths, or think about something happy for a moment. Then I can talk again' or something like that. I think that as my kids get older, that also shows them tools for things to do when at the edge."
Having a moment to collect ourselves is perfectly okay, but completely disconnecting from our child is not. It's important to understand this distinction. If we do get so frustrated and separate ourselves physically from our child, what is the result?
According to Alfie Kohn, there isn't a huge amount of scientific research on love withdrawal, but the little that does exist has turned up disturbingly consistent findings.
"Children on the receiving end tend to have lower self-esteem. They display signs of poorer emotional health overall and may even be more apt to engage in delinquent acts. If we consider a broader category of “psychological control” on the part of parents (of which love withdrawal is said to be “a defining characteristic”), older children who are treated this way are more likely than their peers to be depressed." He goes on to say: "Nothing is more important to us when we’re young than how our parents feel about us. Uncertainty about that, or terror about being abandoned, can leave its mark even after we’re grown"
As parents we need to be conscious of our children's feelings and be mindful. We should treat our children as people with a unique point of view, with very real concerns and fears. Their feelings, desires and questions matter.