The Trouble with Time-Outs

Find out why this go-to strategy has outlived its usefulness and discover positive discipline techniques that really work.
By Daniel Siegel, MD



The Trouble with Time-Outs

Does this scenario sound familiar? Your preschooler asks for more grape juice. You tell her she’s only allowed one cup of juice at dinner — and besides, there’s none left. “I can give you a cup of water,” you tell her. “I don’t want waaater!” she wails, and throws the cup at you. “That’s it!” you snap. “Time-out until you calm down. In your room, now!”

You may not like disciplining your child, especially if you think of it as punishment. But if you’re like many parents, you may also think time-outs are a good way to set clear and consistent boundaries and teach kids self-control. After all, it’s the top discipline tool in many families — and it sure beats yelling or spanking.

As parenting experts, we’ve met many loving moms and dads who think this way. But after exploring the research, talking to thousands of families, and raising our own kids (five between the two of us), we’ve come to what may seem like a startling conclusion: Time-outs usually don’t work.

We’re not saying that time-outs are the worst possible discipline technique or that they cause trauma. But when overused, they can lead to an endless cycle of misunderstandings and frustration.

What works? Setting limits in a way that’s nurturing and respectful by connecting with and redirecting your kid. Trust us, it’s easier than you think, and leads to more thoughtful, cooperative kids. Read on to learn why time-outs cause more problems than they solve — and what to do instead:

The trouble:
Time-outs make kids angrier

The fix:
Calm big emotions

Science shows that focusing on a child’s emotional needs is the most effective approach to changing his behavior. Here’s why: When you meet those needs, your child can calm down and regain control. Then he becomes more receptive to what you have to say.

Say your son gets so mad at his sister for singing while he’s doing homework, he throws his eraser at her. Your instinct might be to banish him to his room to think about what he’s done.

But in our experience, putting kids in time-out will just make them angrier. Most kids are too busy brooding about how mean their parents are to cool down. Not only do they miss a chance to gain some insight into how their behavior affects others, but their anger can lead to more acting out, not less.

So instead of sending your son away, think about what’s bugging him — he might be overreacting, but his feelings are real. Maybe he had a tougher day at school than usual or he finds his homework especially challenging.

Kids who are falling apart need our comfort and calm presence. You can soothe your child’s distress with a hug and an empathetic remark (“I can see you’re having a hard time. I’m here.”). That sends the message that you have your child’s back even when he’s acting horribly. It can also make him more cooperative so the two of you can figure out what to do next.

The trouble:
Time-outs isolate kids

The fix:
Try a "time-in"

Even when you impose a time-out in the gentlest way, children may feel abandoned. Isolating your child in her room — or just asking her to sit alone on the couch — can even send the subtle message that when your kid isn’t “doing the right thing” you don’t want to be near her.

Kids tend to misbehave when the situation or their feelings tax their capacity to handle things. And when they do try to express these big emotions, they may act out in ways that are aggressive or disrespectful.

Your kid could be too hungry, tired, or overwhelmed to make a better choice than hurling a cup on the floor (or an eraser at a sibling). A kid’s brain isn’t sophisticated enough for her to matter-of-factly tell you what’s on her mind. So she falls apart instead.

Teaching kids how to pause and reflect is essential for building executive functions, the mental processes that enable them to reduce impulsivity, organize thoughts, and plan actions carefully. To help her develop this skill, try taking "time-ins". Together, create a “calm zone” — a cozy corner with toys and books — where you both can go when she gets overwhelmed and melts down.

This way, she’ll be better able to “see the sea inside” and develop the ability to calm her internal storms, which can be hard to do when she’s feeling shunned. Over time, she’ll gain the social and emotional intelligence to react to her feelings and other people with insight and empathy.

The trouble:
They don't teach anything

The fix:
Problem-solve together

Whether it’s in response to your child riding his bike without a helmet, pummeling his little brother, or throwing a cup of water on the floor, when you give your kid a time-out, you’re probably defaulting to the tactic out of frustration. But in each of these scenarios, the lesson you want to teach your child is different — so why would you use a one-size-fits-all technique?

Your aim, without being punitive or retaliatory, is to give your child tools to manage his emotions and make better choices. One way to achieve this is to get your kid’s input. So once he’s calmer, you can do a lot of good by asking, “What are some ideas you have to make this situation better?”

Perhaps your grape-juice lover can practice telling you without whining or yelling that she's thirsty, but water tastes boring. You could even brainstorm ways to make a tastier drink (maybe put some berries in that glass of plain H2O). Or your sib-hitter can come up with a couple of nice things he can do for his brother before bedtime.

Another way to redirect is to link the lesson in a direct, logical manner to the rule your child just broke. For example, instead of imposing a brief period of solitary confinement for not wearing his helmet, you might let your child know you’ll be doing a safety check to make sure he wears protective gear — and that’s the new rule for the next two weeks. During this time, your child gets a chance to practice responsibility and safety skills, so the new consequence is more effective in terms of changing behavior, which, after all, is your goal.

Asking for your child’s input and giving her plenty of opportunities to do the right thing rewires her brain. Unlike time-outs (which can lead to more overreaction), connecting and redirecting strengthens the neural pathways between the higher, rational part of the brain and the lower, more primitive, emotional part, so that they communicate more effectively.

The more practice your child gets making good decisions, the faster the rational brain can override the more primitive part — and help her regulate her reactions more skillfully and quickly.

Of course, this discipline strategy can’t ensure that your kid will act the way you would like every time you address a behavior. Children are human beings, after all, who have their own emotions, desires, and agendas, and whose brains aren’t fully developed yet; they’re not computers we program to do exactly what we want them to.

But disciplining through connection and redirection helps de-escalate anger, builds trust and respect, and strengthens the brain. Unlike time-outs, this strategy definitely gives you a better shot at achieving the short-term goal of encouraging your child’s cooperation — and the long-term one of helping your kid become a happy, well-adjusted, and self-disciplined person.

Taming Tantrums at Any Age

Photo Credit: Emily Kate Roemer

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