Looking for a better alternative to a time out? A time out isn’t effective and misses key learning moments. Try this alternative instead.
My three-year-old had been playing with an action figure 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.”
It didn’t feel right to send him away, but I felt like I had no other options. That I needed to send the right message.
He’s not supposed to throw toys, I justified. I have no time for this.
Except I realized that I wasn’t behaving with the best intentions for him. Sending him to his room had little to do with throwing a toy and seemed like a reaction to my own anger. For someone who doesn’t use time outs, I still succumb at times, especially when I’m frustrated.
A better alternative to time out
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Many people use time outs—how can it not be an effective method? Well, I learned a better alternative to time out — one that respects our kids and helps them learn valuable lessons. Hopefully you’ll find it as valuable as fellow parent Ocean L. did:
“I really enjoyed this article, Nina! As usual, great content and really thought-provoking input.”
But there’s a catch: It can be much harder to implement.
You see, instead of a time out, have a time in.
I first heard the idea of a time in from Dr. Laura Markham’s book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. Instead of banishing kids away, draw them closer. Seems crazy, right? My son threw a toy that could’ve hurt someone. Why would I want to give him a hug?
Turns out, a time out isn’t effective and damages our relationship:
- Kids don’t learn how to manage emotions and behavior, which leads to more misbehavior. (When they know how to behave, they misbehave less.)
- A time out sends the wrong message that we only love them when they feel positive emotions, not difficult ones like anger and frustration.
- They feel ashamed, as if they’re bad people.
- We can abuse time outs as a way to leverage our control.
- A time out 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 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 by drawing them close to us. Condoning misbehavior means allowing them to continue throwing toys or ignoring them completely. They aren’t going to misbehave because they got a nice warm hug from mom.
Instead, think of a time in as helping them 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. She’s upset that someone took her toy or that her needs haven’t been met.
A time in reminds her that you’ll always be here to help her learn and better manage this tough feeling. That you love her even when she feels difficult emotions.
Is there ever a situation where a time out is necessary? Sometimes it’s better to send her away when you’re about to lose your temper. But an even better option is to put yourself in a time out to cool down.
Even then, try to send the message that you’re here for her, 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 can also be more difficult than a time out. It’s hard to keep your cool and make yourself available to your child when you’re just as frustrated as he is. You’re human, after all. You feel compelled to lash back when someone upsets you.
Sending her to a time out is fast and, in the short run, seems to work. But it’s an easy way out. Have a time in, and you’ll reap the benefits of a strong parent-child relationship in the long-run.
Here’s how to have an effective time in:
1. Help your child calm down
If your child is throwing a tantrum, it’s impossible to get through to him with words or logic. Instead, focus on calming him down through body language. Stay nearby, hold him if he lets you, and rock him side to side. Let him know you’re here.
This reassures him that you understand what he’s going through. That it’s normal and will eventually pass. He’s not alone and can always turn to you when he has a difficult time behaving.
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2. 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, you reassure your child of many things:
- These feelings are common
- Everyone goes through them
- Her emotions will go away eventually
- You understand and have experienced what she’s going through
The biggest benefit with labeling her 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.”
3. 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 time out, 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. He’s seeking solace for emotions too difficult for him to cope with on his own. When you make yourself available in this way, you’ll see a physical change: His shoulders will soften, and his tears go from angry to calling for help.
He knows you’re here for him.
4. Don’t give in to demands
Having a time in doesn’t mean agreeing to your child’s demands. Don’t give him the iPad he was fussing over to try and calm him down. That may seem like a solution, but you wouldn’t be giving him the limits he needs to learn.
While you’re not giving in to demands, do make it known that he has your full love and attention. Focus less on the iPad and more on helping him label his emotions.
So, it’s not so much, “You’ll get to use the iPad tomorrow” but “You were having fun playing, weren’t you? And now you feel mad because you can’t play with it for today.”
5. Explain the rules, but not right away
Part of why time ins are effective is because they allow your child to learn from the situation. Sending him to a time out alone doesn’t show him how to behave or learn why he feels the way he does.
Once he’s calm and receptive to listening, explain what went wrong. First, acknowledge his intentions. Like the example above, you might say he was having fun playing with the iPad and felt upset when he had to stop.
Then, explain or reiterate the rules. He’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. Action figures are hard toys and can hurt other people or even break.
But again, don’t feel compelled to discipline immediately. You can even wait until much later in the day to talk about what happened, when he’s in a better mood.
6. Give alternatives
Your child will feel upset again at some point. Explain what you can both do instead when he feels himself getting frustrated. He can say “I’m mad!” He could grab a favorite comfort toy when he feels overwhelmed. You could set a timer to show when his time with the iPad is up.
This is when the real magic happens that kids don’t benefit from during time outs. They learn strategies to cope so the misbehavior doesn’t happen as often.
I won’t lie: It’s much easier to send my kids to a time out when they misbehave. I’m too angry to feel affectionate and patient, no matter how much they need me to be. And coaxing them through fear and punishment seems to work right away.
But time ins have been instrumental in building a strong relationship, one that has lasted longer than any immediate benefit of a time out.
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 anger aside to make yourself available to your child. This is perhaps the biggest reason motherhood can be hard. We set aside our own needs out of the way for the moment so we can help our kids with theirs.
But the results? You and your child will feel much better after you resolve a situation together than if you had sent him to a time out. Holding him close will even calm your once flaring anger down.
And he knows you’re always here for him, even when he throws tantrums and hurls action figures across the room.
Get more tips:
- Toddler Not Listening? 7 Things You Need to Do
- How to Discipline a 4 Year Old When Nothing Seems to Work
- Top 7 Ways to Make Parenting Toddlers Easier
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
- As Frustrating as It Is, Your Child’s Behavior Is Normal
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