Do time outs really work? Many parents use time outs to discipline, but here’s why time outs don’t work and what to do instead.
You hear it all the time: If your child misbehaves, put him in time out. He’ll learn those actions aren’t tolerated, and that consequences follow his misbehavior. You can even consult charts that suggest how many minutes per age to put him in time out. Heck, my kids’ own pediatrician recommended this method. Except… I’m not buying it.
Why time outs don’t work and what to do instead
Formal time outs haven’t been part of my parenting method. I do agree that using time outs is a better alternative than losing your cool or spanking your kids, and we all have days where isolating kids in a corner is the smartest thing we can do, to calm our kids and ourselves down.
But is there a better way? After all…
1. Time outs isolate children
Of course, you might say. That’s the point, right? Punishment means removing the things kids enjoy. No people, no toys, no fun. Sit and learn your lesson.
Except, they’re not learning their lesson. Alone in that corner, your child isn’t thinking about why she shouldn’t have hit her baby sister. She’s not thinking it’s her actions and not her as a person that’s in question, or reassuring herself that her feelings are valid or that she’s loved no matter what.
No, she’s still fuming at the unfairness of it all. She doesn’t understand why she’s punished when her baby sister ruined her building blocks. She might even think she’s a bad person for deserving this time out.
Why? She has nobody talking to her about these issues. She’s all by herself.
2. Time outs don’t acknowledge your child’s feelings
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I refer to this as “honoring the impulse,” a term coined in the book, Becoming the Parent You Want To Be by Laura Davis. When we send our kids to time out, we overlook the underlying and valid reason they acted up in the first place.
For instance, my toddler had a horrible habit of hitting others. My first reaction was to isolate him. Hitting warrants an extreme reaction, I reasoned.
Except I didn’t address my son’s frustration. In his mind, he was hitting his brother because he didn’t want his toy taken away and had no other way to say so. Hitting is never the appropriate way to express frustration, but in sending my son to a time out, I didn’t acknowledge the underlying reason. For all I know, he might think he gets time outs whenever he gets upset.
We don’t get to ask ourselves whether their misbehavior was normal when we whisk them off to a time out. We don’t realize that hitting, no matter how inappropriate, is still common for toddlers, or maybe we forgot that he skipped a nap and was feeling tired.
These aren’t excuses for hitting, but understanding the motive behind his misbehavior reveals that his frustration was valid.
Time outs also embarrass kids. Making kids feel bad—whether through embarrassment or punishment—isn’t the goal of discipline. The goals include things like learning acceptable conduct. Regulating her emotions. Following directions. Not feeling terrible about themselves.
3. Kids learn that negative feelings should be ignored
The biggest mistake we make with our kids’ emotions? We place judgment on them. We embrace our kids when they’re happy, excited and in a good mood, but send them off on their own when they’re angry, frustrated or sad.
Time outs teach kids that negative emotions should be hushed or ignored, not sorted or dealt with. We tell our kids, “If you’re going to be that loud, then go cry in your room.” All because we don’t want to sit with them during their sadder moments.
And we repress and label certain emotions as bad instead of for what they are: They’re feelings that come and go. Nor do they define who we are—we feel bad, we’re not bad people.
This doesn’t mean you smother your kids with hugs and affection when they’re frustrated. Some kids need time and physical space to settle their emotions, and the same child who takes to hugs and kisses might sometimes want to be alone, but they should know that we’re always here and nearby when they’re ready.
4. Kids don’t learn to regulate their emotions
During time outs, kids don’t have us nearby to help them regulate their emotions. We can’t discuss their feelings, or reassure them that unsettling feelings are normal and will go away. Kids don’t learn to take deep breaths or feel comforted by a nursery song or a beloved stuffed animal.
They don’t learn those coping methods when they’re sitting on a chair away from us and any comfort items they could use.
5. What to do when time outs don’t work
What then is an alternative to time out for discipline? If time outs aren’t effective, how can we discipline when time-outs don’t work?
Have a time in.
When your child misbehaves to the point where you’re drawn to implement a time out, draw him in instead. This is the time he needs you most. Not just when he’s chipper and happy, but when he’s sad, angry and confused.
In connecting with our kids, we can see their point of view. We’re better able to decide whether their misbehavior was developmentally appropriate or not.
Follow these four steps when your child misbehaves:
- Label the emotion
- Honor the impulse
- Establish limits
- Teach the correct behavior (e.g. redirect)
For example: “Looks like you’re tired and upset (labeling her emotions) because you don’t like the food mama gave you (honoring the impulse), but we don’t throw food on the floor (establishing limits). Next time you don’t like the food, just leave it on the table (teaching the correct behavior).”
Sometimes you don’t even have to talk. Your child can be in such a meltdown that he can’t listen or doesn’t want you to hold him close. In this case, stay nearby and say, “Mama’s right here to help you if you want” and try reaching out again in a few minutes.
At least he knows he’s not alone with his emotions. That you won’t abandon him when he misbehaves or when he’s feeling terrible.
Let them cry to you. My kids calm down much faster when I say, “Mama’s right here. You can cry to me,” than when I lose my temper. They know I’m on their side and I’m here to help. They need compassion and comfort, not distance and isolation.
Or redirect their actions if possible. Your daughter threw the heavy toy truck towards the glass window? Correct the behavior and show her a similar but more appropriate way to do so. “Throwing is cool, but we can’t throw heavy toys because they can break things. Here, throw this soft ball instead.”
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Why we’re too quick to put our kids in time out
- Our reactions. Maintaining composure after our kids misbehave is hard. We lose our temper. We throw our own tantrum. We’re having a bad day that has nothing to do with them (tired from work, worries about our finances), and we take it out on our misbehaving kids. Our first reaction is to punish them.
- The false belief that love rewards misbehavior. We assume that kids will continue to misbehave when we give them attention, but you’re not letting them “get away with it” when you comfort your kids. Letting them continue to throw food and hit other kids sends that message. Instead you guide and love him even through his lows, not just when he’s happy and behaving. Don’t withhold your love as a punishment.
Time outs are a much better alternative than losing your cool or saying something you’ll regret, and sometimes you need a time out yourself; a chance to breathe and calm down.
But time outs are hurting your child and aren’t always effective. We lose so many opportunities to show our kids the right way to behave. We isolate them at the time they need us the most, and they don’t learn how to regulate their emotions so they stop misbehaving in the long run.
Instead, draw your child in. You’re not letting her get away with misbehavior—you’re still going to enforce those rules, but you’re there to comfort, guide and support. After all, she needs your love through thick and through thin, through good behavior or not.
Read more posts about discipline:
- Becoming the Parent You Want To Be by Laura Davis
- How to Discipline a Child: The Ultimate List of Resources
- How to Stop Siblings from Fighting and Teach Conflict Resolution Instead
- The Surprisingly Simple Question You Should Always Ask Yourself before Disciplining Your Child
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Deliberately Disobeys
Your turn: What are your thoughts on time outs? Do you agree that time outs don’t work? How do you discipline your kids when they misbehave? Share your thoughts in the comments!