Looking for a better alternative to timeout? Putting your child in time out isn’t effective and misses key learning moments. Try this alternative instead.
My three-year-old had been playing with a Transformer when, out of frustration, he hurled it several feet away. He knew he’s not supposed to throw certain toys that can break or hurt others, but he didn’t seem to care.
“We don’t throw those toys,” I glared at him. “Please pick it up and put it on the shelf.”
As expected, he stayed rooted to where he sat. Insert more threats here and there, and, I regret to admit, said, “You need to go to your room. Right now.”
He’s not supposed to throw toys, I justified. I have no time for this.
Except I realized I wasn’t behaving with the best intentions for my child. Sending him to his room had little to do with throwing a Transformer. For someone who doesn’t use timeouts, I still succumb at times, especially when I’m angry.
Many people use timeouts—how can it not be an effective method? Well, I learned a better alternative to timeout. One that respects our kids and helps them learn valuable lessons. But there’s a catch: It’s much harder to implement.
A better alternative to timeout
Instead of a timeout, have a time in.
I first heard the idea of a time in from Dr. Laura Markham in her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. Instead of banishing kids away, draw them closer. Seems crazy, right? My son just threw a toy that could’ve hurt someone. Why would I want to give him a hug?
Turns out, timeout isn’t effective and damages our relationship with our kids:
- Kids don’t learn how to manage emotions and behavior, which leads to more misbehavior. (When they know how to behave, they tend to misbehave less.)
- Timeout sends the wrong message that we only love them when they feel positive emotions, not difficult ones like anger and frustration.
- Kids feel ashamed, as if they’re bad people.
- We can abuse timeouts as a way to leverage our control through fear.
- Timeout puts parents and kids on opposite sides rather than on the same team working toward a common goal.
Even with so many benefits of a time in, we might wonder if we’re condoning misbehavior. It can seem strange to give kids attention after they had just done something they’re not supposed to do.
But don’t think of a time in as a reward.
We’re not condoning misbehavior because we’re drawing them close to us. Condoning misbehavior means allowing them to continue throwing toys, or ignoring them completely. Our kids aren’t going to misbehave because they got a nice warm hug from mom.
Instead, think of a time in as helping kids manage emotions and behavior, not rewarding it.
Misbehavior and meltdowns are your child’s struggles. Maybe she doesn’t know how to communicate feeling tired. Or she’s upset someone took her toy. Or you haven’t met her needs.
A time in tells your child, I will always be here to help you learn and better manage this tough feeling. I love you even when you have difficult emotions.
Is there ever a situation where a timeout is necessary? Sometimes it’s better to send our kids away when we feel we’re about to lose our temper. Even better, I’d rather put myself in a timeout to cool down.
But we should try to send the message that we’re here for our kids, no matter what. And the best way to do that is through a time in.
Best practices for a time in
As effective as a time in may be, it’s also much harder than a timeout. It’s hard to keep your cool and make yourself available to your child when you’re just as frustrated as she is. We’re human, after all. When someone upsets us the way our kids do, we want to lash right back.
Sending them to timeout is fast and, in the short run, seems to work. But it’s an easy way out. Draw your child in, and you’ll reap the benefits of a strong parent-child relationship.
Help your child calm down
If your child is throwing a tantrum, it’s impossible to get through to her with words or logic. Instead, focus on calming her down through body language. Stay nearby, hold her if she lets you, and rock her side to side. Let her know you’re here.
This reassures your child you understand what she’s going through. That it’s normal and will eventually pass. She’s not alone and can always turn to you when she has a difficult time behaving.
Label your child’s emotions
Many kids have no idea what these physical and mental emotions are. They wonder if something is wrong with them, or even if they’ll ever feel happy again.
But by labeling emotions, it reassures our kids of many things:
- These feelings are common
- Everyone goes through them
- Their emotions will go away eventually
- We understand and have experienced what they’re going through
Perhaps the biggest benefit with labeling your child’s emotions? It provides a more effective way for her to communicate instead of having an outburst. It’s the difference between throwing a fit and saying, “I’m mad.”
Let your child find comfort and guidance in you
I’m always amazed what a difference a time in can make with my kids. With a timeout, emotions are flaring and walls are built. But with time ins, we’re on the same side of that wall.
Let your child crumble in your arms. She’s seeking solace for emotions too difficult for her to cope with on her own. When you make yourself available in this way, you’ll see a physical change: Her shoulders will soften, her tears go from angry to calling for help.
She knows you’re here, no matter what.
Don’t give in to demands
Having a time in doesn’t mean agreeing to your child’s demands. Don’t give her the iPad she was fussing over to try and calm her down. That may seem like a solution, but you wouldn’t be giving her the limits she needs to learn.
While you’re not giving in to demands, do make it known that she has your full love and attention. Focus less on the iPad and more on helping her label her emotions.
So it’s not so much, “You’ll get to use the iPad tomorrow” but rather “You were having fun playing, weren’t you? And now you feel mad because you can’t play with it for today.”
Explain the rules, but not right away
Part of why time ins are so effective is because they allow your child to learn from the situation. Sending her to timeout alone doesn’t show her how to better behave or learn why she feels the way she does.
Once your child is calm and is receptive to listening, explain what went wrong. First, acknowledge her intentions. Like the example above, you might say she was having fun playing with the iPad and felt upset when she had to stop.
Then, explain or reiterate the rules. She’s only allowed to use the iPad for 30 minutes a day. It’s dinner time and we don’t allow toys at the table. Transformers are hard toys and can hurt other people or even break.
Your child will feel upset again at some point. Explain what you can both do instead when she feels herself getting frustrated. She might say “I’m mad!” She could grab a favorite comfort toy when she feels overwhelmed. You could set a timer to indicate when her time with the iPad is up.
This is when the real magic happens that kids don’t benefit from during timeouts. They learn strategies to cope so the misbehavior doesn’t happen as often.
I won’t lie: It’s much easier for me to send my kids to timeout when they misbehave. I’m too angry to feel affectionate, no matter how much they need me to be. And coaxing them through fear and punishment seems to work right away.
But doing time ins have been instrumental in building a strong relationship with my kids, one that lasts far longer than any short-term, immediate benefits of a timeout.
And, as with all things parenting, kids are unpredictable. You can’t keep a spreadsheet to measure how effective you’ve been as a parent. Some days are great while on others, even the best tips don’t make a difference.
So yes, it’s hard to push your own anger aside to make yourself available to your kids. This is perhaps the biggest reason parenting is hard work. We push our own needs out of the way for the moment so we can help our kids with theirs.
But the results? My kids and I feel much better after we resolve a situation together than if I had sent them to timeout. Holding them close even calms my once flaring anger down.
And they know I’m always here for them, even when they throw tantrums and hurl Transformers across the room.
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Get more tips:
- Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham
- How to Discipline a Child: The Ultimate List of Resources
- Why Spanking Your Child Isn’t Necessary (And What to Do Instead)
- How Teaching Kids about Emotions Reduces Misbehavior
- 7 Alternatives to Using “Time Out”
Tell me in the comments: When was the last time you put your child in a time out? Has a time in been a better alternative to timeout?
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