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Out with Time Outs, In With New Strategies

Mother and daughter talking on couch

Many modern parents have memories of spending time with their noses tucked into the kitchen corner for a “time out” as a child. In retrospect, a time out often came without warning, carried a random duration, and was accompanied by a parent telling us to “think about what we’d done.” In reality, we mostly stared at the wall or picked at the paint until the egg timer sang the sweet sound of release.

Today, time out remains a well-worn disciplinary tactic, but many parents wonder if it’s effective and if it aligns with what we know about childhood development.

Questions like “Do time outs work?” are common among modern parents, reflecting a need to reassess this discipline method.

Is a time out an effective discipline method?

Being sentenced to time out can be interpreted by children (often correctly) as an attempt to get rid of or silence them. Rather than solving an environmental or behavioral problem, time out is often misused as a quick way of making a problem go away without really addressing it. Moreover, we have to remember that children don’t have the same life experience or wisdom we do and may not be able to “think about what they’ve done” effectively. They may not even really understand their error, in which case, feelings are hurt, and time is wasted.

When used, time outs without conversation, introspection, or redirection, can quickly turn into five or ten minutes of thinking about how unfair mom and dad are. Kids can end up “doing their time” without learning anything or understanding how to adjust their behavior. If our goal is to teach limits, redirect behavior, and reinforce healthy communication, then time outs are a poor way to achieve that, leading many to question, “What is time out?” and its effectiveness.

Is there a better way to teach and help your child?

The typical use of time out involves recognizing when a child misbehaves and temporarily taking them out of the situation. However, some people criticize this approach, mainly due to the idea of excluding the child. While there’s validity in these concerns, research suggests that when combined with positive reinforcement and used in moderation, time out can contribute positively to the parent-child relationship. It’s all about finding the right balance.

As parents explore alternative disciplinary methods, the shift away from time out and towards “time in” reflects a broader recognition of the need for empathy, communication, and understanding in fostering healthy parent-child relationships.

Incorporating a “time in chair” or “chair time out” strategy can foster a more positive learning environment by encouraging children to reflect on their actions with support.

During a time in, instead of tucking your child away in a corner or a lonely room to grapple with their feelings alone, you sit through the experience with them and help them navigate it. A time in still achieves the separation but provides a support structure for learning and growth. Not only can it help your child understand and regulate their emotions, but it can help build trust in your relationship.

An effective time in should aim for three main goals:

  1. Acknowledge emotion: First and foremost, any discipline should acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. It was likely a response to overwhelming emotion if they were rough on the playground or mean to a classmate. You can’t address the behavior without addressing the feelings that cause them.
  2. Provide behavioral guidance: it isn’t enough to tell a child what they’ve done is wrong. We must tell them, and maybe even model, how they could have behaved differently. The goal isn’t to scold but to redirect.
  3. Repair any damage done: Dealing with feelings and guiding behavior are essential, but no less critical than repairing any damage. If your child’s actions hurt feelings, damage a toy, or otherwise cause harm, they should also take action to correct that harm and restore any damaged relationships.

Critics argue “Why are time-outs not developmentally appropriate?” suggesting alternatives that focus on understanding and empathy rather than isolation.

Of course, no one solution is correct for every child or every situation. Sometimes, a version of a time out might be exactly what is needed, especially if your child is feeling overwhelmed by an activity, environment, or person. Rather than a punishment, allow your child to take a break from activities, spaces, or people when and if needed. Then, regroup to talk through those feelings when your child is emotionally equipped for that conversation.

How can I avoid time out and time in altogether?

Time out and time in differ in their tone and execution, but they are both overt forms of discipline. If you’re a kid in time in, you know it. In many instances, it may not be necessary to communicate directly that any discipline is occurring. Instead, you can incorporate behavioral redirection into ordinary conversation and activities.

Rather than looking for a universal solution to all behavioral challenges, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve and how best to achieve it from a position of love and support.

Considering the question “How long should time out be?” ensures that any use of time out is thoughtful and appropriate to the situation.

  1. Will a form of discipline escalate or de-escalate an emotional situation? This will likely differ from child to child and from situation to situation. Does your child need a tight hug or some space to themselves? How best can you curb behavior while supporting your child’s emotional well-being?
  2. Does discipline model the sort of behaviors you want to see? Does a form of discipline teach your child to think through and communicate their feelings or bottle them up? Does a form of discipline establish trust or distrust? Does a form of discipline help your child make the connection between their actions and the effects they may have on others?
  3. Is discipline predictable and consistent from the child’s point of view? Consistency and predictability are critical during childhood development. That’s not to suggest that you should continue any poor practices that may have become established, only that your child should understand the consequences they are likely to encounter.

In many cases, you can achieve all of these goals through simple redirection. Coloring on the walls might be solved by providing other art materials to work with. If your child feels aggressive, or wants to smash something, you might let them break down boxes or smash the garbage into the can. Without time alone, punishment, or coarse words, redirection communicates desirable and undesirable behaviors while providing appropriate alternatives. It’s always good to remember that your child’s feelings aren’t the problem, just how they are being expressed. You are showing your child a better path by helping them navigate their big feelings and reactions, questioning “Is time out effective?” and exploring more constructive approaches.

Lori Jo Leonard, LCSW

Lori Jo Leonard, LCSW

Lori Jo is a therapist in our Stansbury Park office.

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