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. My kids’ own pediatrician recommended this method.
Except… I’m not buying it.
You see, the more I researched and learned about time outs, the more I realized that time outs can cause more harm than good.
And that, if anyone should get a time out during a heated moment, it should be us, the parents.
Walking away to another room or counting down a minute to collect ourselves is far better than lashing out and losing our cool. But to send our kids to time out is not the best strategy, especially if we want them to learn valuable lessons about their behavior and choices.
Why time outs don’t work and what to do instead
So, why don’t time outs work? After all, we hear about them so often, whether from other parenting resources, on television, our friends and family. We may have even grown up with time outs and figure we turned out all right.
But there’s more to time outs than we think. Not only are they an ineffective method in the long run, they also don’t serve our kids well.
Take a look at these compelling reasons why time outs don’t work. More importantly, learn what you can do instead of a time out that will strengthen your relationship with your child:
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 doesn’t realize it’s her actions—and not her as a person—that needs to change. Nor does she reassure 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.
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2. Time outs don’t acknowledge your child’s feelings
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When we send our kids to time out, we overlook the underlying and valid reason they acted up in the first place. I refer to this as “honoring the impulse,” a term coined in the book, Becoming the Parent You Want To Be by Laura Davis.
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 we forget that he skipped a nap and was feeling tired.
These aren’t excuses for hitting, but understanding the motive 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.
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.
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.
- Correct your child’s behavior. You can also follow these four steps when your child misbehaves: 1) Label the emotion. 2) Honor the impulse. 3) Establish limits. 4) Teach the correct behavior. 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 your 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.
- 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.”
Why we’re too quick to put our kids in time out
Why do we resort to time outs right away?
The first reason is because we react. Maintaining composure after our kids misbehave is hard. We lose our temper and throw our own tantrum. We have bad days that have nothing to do with them (tired from work, worries about our finances), but still take it out on them.
And the second reason is a false belief that love rewards misbehavior.
We assume that kids will continue to misbehave when we give them attention. Except 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. We can’t withhold our love as a form of punishment.
Time outs have been around for a while, but that doesn’t make them effective. Sure, you might stop the unwanted behavior right quickly, but they learn to obey out of fear and threats, and can even resent you for enforcing the rules.
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. Correct her behavior by talking about why it’s inappropriate, as well as teaching her better alternatives.
And be present for your child, no matter her behavior. After all, she needs your love through thick and through thin, through good behavior or not.
Get more tips:
- Parenting Doesn’t Have to Be So Overwhelming
- A Better but Not Always Easier Alternative to Timeouts
- How to Teach Conflict Resolution for Children
- The Surprisingly Simple Question You Should Always Ask Yourself before Disciplining Your Child
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen
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