What’s Wrong With Time Out for Children?

Most parents nowadays try not to use physical punishment.  Many have been advised instead to use modern child management: timeouts.  But any child can explain to you that timeouts are actually punishment.

What’s wrong with Timeouts for children?

On the surface, Timeouts seem sensible. They give everyone a chance to calm down. Supposedly, they teach kids a lesson. Well, I have bad news for you.

Grass PlayIt’s true that timeouts for children are infinitely better than hitting, and yelling. But Timeouts teach the wrong lessons, and they don’t work to create better behaved children.  In fact, they always worsen kids' behavior.

Why? Because any child can explain to you that timeouts ARE punishment, not any different than when you were made to stand in the corner as a child.  And any time you punish a child, you make him feel worse about himself.

Here’s what happens when you use timeouts for children:

1. Timeouts make kids feel bad about themselves. You confirm what she suspected – she is a bad person. Not only does this lower self esteem, it creates bad behavior, because people who feel bad about themselves behave badly.

As Otto Weininger, Ph.D. author of Time-In Parenting says:
“Sending children away to get control of their anger perpetuates the feeling of ‘badness” inside them…Chances are they were already feeling not very good about themselves before the outburst and the isolation just serves to confirm in their own minds that they were right.”

2. Kids need our help to learn to calm themselves. Sure, a child will eventually calm down if confined to “the naughty step” or their room, but what they’ll be learning is that they are all alone with their most difficult feelings and problems. The fastest way to teach kids to calm themselves is to provide a “holding environment” for the child, giving him the message that his out of control feelings are acceptable and can be managed.

3. You’re breaking your child’s trust in you by triggering his fear of abandonment.  Banishing an upset child is pushing him away just when he needs you the most. Worst of all, instead of helping him to calm down, it triggers his innate fear of abandonment.  If gives him the message that only his “pleasant” feelings are ok, that his authentic, messy, difficult feelings – part of who we all are – are unacceptable and unlovable.

4. Instead of reaffirming your relationship with your child so she WANTS to please you, timeouts create a power struggle.They set up a relationship that pits you and your authority against the child. It’s true that as long as the parent is bigger than the child, the parent wins this power struggle, but no one ever really wins in a parent-child power struggle.  The child loses face and has plenty of time to sit around fantasizing revenge.  (Did you really think she was resolving to be a better kid?)

5. Because you have to harden your heart to your child’s distress during the timeout, timeouts erode your empathy for your child.  Yet your empathy for this struggling little person is the basis of your relationship with him, and is the most important factor in whether or not he behaves to begin with.  So parents who use timeouts often find themselves in a cycle of escalating misbehavior.

So timeouts for children, while infinitely better than hitting, are just another version of punishment by banishment and humiliation. To the degree that Timeouts are seen as punishment by kids – and they always are — they are not as effective as positive discipline to encourage good behavior.

So if you’re using them as punishment for transgressions, that’s a signal that you need to come up with a more effective strategy.

And if you’re using them to deal with your kids’ meltdown, that’s actually destructive, as I mentioned, because you’re triggering your child’s abandonment panic. If you want to teach your child emotional self-management, that’s only effective before a meltdown starts.  When you realize your child is getting to that dangerous over-wrought place, suggest that the two of you take some “cozy time” – snuggle up and read a book.  Some parents call this a “Time IN” because it signals to the child that this is a time to experience his emotions, so he can let them go and move on.

Once the meltdown starts and your child is swept with emotion, it’s too late for teaching.  Just stay nearby so you don’t trigger his abandonment panic, and stay calm. Don’t give in to whatever caused the meltdown, but offer your total sympathy and be ready to reassure him of your love.

I want to add that Timeouts for adults are a terrific management technique for keeping your own emotions regulated.  When you find yourself losing it, take five.  This keeps you from doing anything you’ll be sorry about later.  It models wonderful self-management for your kids. And it ultimately makes your discipline more effective because you aren’t making threats you won’t carry out.

Parents who use timeouts are often shocked to learn that there are families who never hit, never use timeouts, and rarely raise their voices to their children.  But you shouldn’t need to use these methods of discipline, and if you're using them now, you'll probably be quite relieved to hear that you can wean yourself away from them.

And remember, this too shall pass!

-Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting

You can learn more about Setting Limits Without Saying “Time Out” here.

21 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Time Out for Children?”

  1. A kind of time out that worked: One of the best techniques I ever used to help my kids get along, was to sit them on the stairs facing each other holding hands and telling them they couldn’t laugh! Of course they always laughed and then started goofing around, and I’d let them go play! A mother of seven told me about this. My kids still talk about it once in a while! Of course I didn’t go anywhere because I wanted to see the result! What do you think?

  2. My daughter would use timeout to stew about all the reasons she was right and I was wrong. She would leave timeouts behaving better, but supressing rage. That rage would eventually erupt into yet another behavior problem. After one huge blowup (she actually flung herself against a wall), we talked about consequences of bad behavior. She said she would rather do something physical. The new punishment became two laps around the outside of the house. Although only asked to do two, she would often stay out and do six or seven. The resulting discussion and focus on task afterward were such an improvement. We gradually moved away from the need to punish as the bad behavior decreased and went away. As I read more and more about Emotional Intelligence and the way emotions flush from our systems, I’m glad we made the change. She is now a grown, her masters in psychology, and, for the most part, a happy young woman.

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  5. I agree with what this article is saying about Time Out causing abandonment feelings and the child thinking of revenge, because I remember as a child feeling this way. However, if you suggest time-in to a child who wants to get their way, even if you nicely say, “Lets go read a book and talk about what you are feeling”, the child is most likely going to say no and begin a temper tantrum anyway (possibly a destructive or dangerous one) because you are saying no either way. Toddlers don’t have the reasoning skills to calmly go talk about their feelings, especially if they aren’t using full sentences yet. I can’t imagine a way to teach a child not to do something using only positive reinforcement that would actually work. In real life, even though it sounds good on paper, it just seems impossible.

    1. I so don’t have time to write right now, but I couldn’t resist. Only because I don’t want you to give up! I can tell you from a practical, on-the-ground perspective that “time’ins” work. Not only do I use them with my three boys (now 8, 10 and 12), but I have helped many many families create more peaceful and cooperative households using this strategy. The reason this strategy works is because it taps into the child’s natural healing process by offering them a safe place to release the upset feelings that are getting in the way of him or her being able to think well. Yes, these tantrums, if you will, can be embarrassing for us parents, but if we can just take a deep breath, remember that every parent has “been there”, and move in close and bring a limit (keeping everyone safe), the child will release the upset and move into a calmer place where s/he will be better able to take no for an answer. And these little sessions pay off in dividends. The more we’re able to listen to the little upsets, the more flexible our children become, and the fewer “meltdowns” we experience. 🙂 I hope you’ll give it a go!

  6. I remember when my child entered “tantrum age”: I felt helpless , my attempts at reasoning with him totally failed and I started thinking that possibly time out was a tool worthy of my consideration, after all. I hated the idea of it, but couldn’t find another way out. I agree with what Lynn said, no way you can get a toddler to talk about his feelings, particularly if they don’t talk.. My bilingual kid at 20 months did not talk at all…

    What I eventually discovered was that I didn’t need a way out, and I didn’t even need him to talk: I needed to become able to be there with him, listen to him and hold a safe, warm and caring space for him, while he went through him emotional storm. My presence, my caring, allowed him to release all the built-up upset and frustration which drove his behaviour off-track.

    Once I started doing that, the intensity and frequency of tantrums dramatically decreased, cooperation and harmony increased, and the need to give time outs a thought disappeared.

    Tantrums, and also crying, are often considered unacceptable behaviour, to be discouraged. But really they are the way children use to signal that they are so upset, hurt or frustrated they can’t think.. allowing them to shed all that emotional tension, with a warm presence, restores their ability to connect, think, learn, cooperate. It is an amazing process to witness, and it is empowering to know that our caring, loving presence, is a very effective tool we can use to support our children during their hard times

  7. i find myself engaging in power struggles with my 6 year old son (knowing very well how ineffective it is but for some reason I end right back there sending him to his room). I have a very highly energettic, intelligent and strong willed child who has entered this stage of wanting to debate, argue, defy and challenge almost every request, demand or statement made lately. It’s enough to push me to the brink of insanity. Once he doesn’t get his way, he becomes angry and disruptive (rarely physically aggressive, which would consist of throwing a toy in the direction of his little sister which is more for a reaction because he does it wilth force and never has he caiused harm) I do believe he has a sensitive soul and is hard on himself so I cringe at the thought of reinforcing this negative self thoughts. However when I try to engage him, take him aside to have my full attention he covers his ears and says he’s bad (which we never use those words so I know that is his own self talk. I am wondering if there were any tips or suggestions on how to begin the shift of this approach for a child with similar behaviors. Any feedback is much appreciated. Thank you!

    1. Muftiah Martin

      Hi Kelly,
      You’ve waited a while for a response! First of all, your son is so lucky to have you thinking about all of this and how best to respond to him when he is “off-track” (the term we use in Parenting by Connection).

      This short article about setting limits will link you at the end to a free download by Patty Wipfler on setting limits: https://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/parent-education-listening-and-limits/. It will talk about the “Listen-Limit-Listen” approach and describe how to do what we call “Staylistening.” This also has a brief overview: https://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/setting-limits-with-young-children/.

      Do you have someone you can share some Listening Time with, someone who won’t judge you or give advice, to explore that impulse to send him to his room? It might be fruitful to talk about how your parents set limits with you as well as what comes up when he says he is bad (that is hard to hear for any loving parent).

      Also, are you doing regular Special Time with him? That is important before launching into any of the other Listening Tools (such as Limit Setting and Staylistening) that Hand in Hand teaches because it lays the essential foundation of trust and connection that will sustain all the other emotional work that he’ll do with you.

      Let us know if the articles are helpful with this challenge.

      All the best!

  8. So I’m just curious… how do I give myself a timeout to keep my cool without simultaneously giving my toddler one (and thus triggering abdonment panic) when I’m a SAHM – the only one present with my child to handle these situations – and she wants to be with me every moment? Suggestions? Thanks. 🙂

    1. Muftiah Martin

      Hi again, Kim,
      I realize I didn’t post my response to you so that it would thread to your post. So, if you haven’t already seen it, come back to this page to see the subsequent post.

  9. Hi Kim,
    That’s a great question! I’m a Parenting by Connection instructor candidate and I’ll offer my thoughts. Perhaps others will chime in. One of the things I remember my first Parenting by Connection instructor say is that it is easier to repair the pain of separation than it is to repair the damage we might cause (by saying or doing hurtful things) in the heat of the challenging moment. With that in mind, on a few occasions, I have walked away from my daughter in the midst of an interaction where I can feel my frustration level rising so high that I might start to yell or handle her roughly. Every parent has those moments. I tell her I’m really frustrated and I’m going to take a couple of minutes to calm myself down and I’ll be right back to be with her. And she does cry in terrible distress that I am abandoning her in the middle of an interaction that is hard for both of us. I find, for myself, that sometimes I only need about 20 seconds, or at the most, a couple of minutes, to pull myself together enough to go and be with her and immediately set to the work of re-connecting.

    In the longer term, we can work on building a support system for ourselves so that we don’t have as many of those I’m-about-to-lose-it-moments, but perhaps my experience will give you an idea of what to do when those inevitable moments do happen, and they happen to all of us!

    1. Kim, Muftiah has given you some great ideas, and I have one more. LAY DOWN!!! This is one of my favorites, as I, too have a child who can’t let me out of his sight when he is off-track. When I lie down, I let go of my illusion that I have any control, here. In fact, I am about to lose it. I don’t know what to do to MAKE my son do what I want, and honestly, thoughts of punishments are dancing through my brain. So I lay down. It’s amazing how it shifts and diffuses the power struggle. Your toddler may become curious and even playful. Try it! and let us know how it goes. Peace & Smiles, Kathy Gordon Parenting by Connection Certified Instructor

      1. Oh, yes! Laying down. I have tried that, too, and it worked wonders. My then 3-yr. old came and laid down with me and it turned into a snuggle fest. Thanks for the reminder, Kathy!

  10. This post on time outs has enlightened me. My daughter is two and a half and has just started to really push the boundaries lately. I have used time outs but I didn’t feel that they were terribly effective. Today, during actually a lovely time with my daughter she came up to me and hit me hard across the face. I was shocked because it came from nowhere. My initial reaction was to put her in a time out on the stairs, however when she saw how hurt and shocked I was I refrained from making a reaction other than shock. It only took a few seconds for her bottom lip to start trembling that I realised how upset she was. Instead of being cross with her I reached out and let her fall into my arms and cry. She was genuinely sorry. I gently reminded her that hitting is not acceptable. She kissed me, told she was sorry and we moved on to spend some time cuddling and relaxing together. Time outs are now a thing of the past. I would not want my daughter to feel isolated at a time when she lashed out for reasons she’s not yet capable of voicing – she was being simply a ‘toddler’ and I felt very connected to her in those few minutes – it turned a negative reaction into something positive, that she can be loved and lovable even after physically hurting someone.

  11. My 18 month old has this figured out better than I do. When we’re at home, he will take my hand and take me to the bedroom to lay down and nurse, anywhere from 5-15 minutes. When he’s calmed down, he gets up.

    It’s difficult when we’re out, we don’t have the luxury of always going into the bedroom. We try our best to avoid triggers, like pushing it for nap time. Doesn’t always work.

    What do you do when you’re in public? Other than walk him outside or to the car?

  12. Just wondering. As a primary caregiver, how to take a time out for myself without inadvertently giving my child a timeout simultaneously. It’s just me and my 1.5 year old all day… so taking my own timeout without triggering a fear of abandonment seems impossible.

  13. Our 4 year old high functioning Autistic daughter becomes aggressive with our 15 month old when he touches her things or gets in her space. I don’t know how to giver her time in and help her to work through it/support her while soothing him.

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