The Trouble with Time Out

Before I begin, please understand that I believe time out is a major improvement over spanking and physical punishment. There's much to celebrate when a culture stops intentionally inflicting pain upon its children. And I while I am incredibly grateful for that shift, I think we can do even better.

I realize I might take some heat for writing this, because I'm critiquing a technique that many parents have been taught to use as their primary disciplinary intervention. I'm okay with heat. In my own life and work, I strive to periodically re-evaluate my strategies and take stock of their effectiveness. My parenting advice has evolved over the years since I started doing this work, and I hope it continues to do so for many years to come. My intention here is to inspire you to take a closer look at whether this technique is truly working for you and your child.

If you have already done your own evaluation and feel confident that it is, that's great! No need to keep reading.

Still here? Then perhaps, like many of the parents I talk to these days, you feel a niggling doubt about its effectiveness. You may be finding yourselves in major power struggles trying to enforce time out, even to the point of becoming physical with your child by holding him in the chair. You may be wondering what you are going to do when he's too big and strong for you to physically control anymore.

Or perhaps your child does not seem to be deterred by the prospect of time out, and you may have upped the time to unbelievably long intervals with no resulting change in behavior patterns.

Or maybe she 'does the time', only to be released and immediately 'commit the crime' again.

Why doesn't time out work to prevent future misbehavior?  Because it isolates kids from their support systems -- us. Little brains that are wigging out and not able to think clearly or make good decisions about how to behave appropriately need contact with mature adult brains to find their way back to a calm, rational state.

They also need to learn what behavior IS acceptable, and time out only teaches them that they will experience isolation if they behave in a way that is unacceptable. It does not teach alternatives.

So instead of time out, you might consider a time in. Instead of sending your child away, suggest taking a break together. Read a book out loud, go for a walk, snuggle on the couch. Change things up a bit. Tell your child that you will help him to calm down and think more clearly again. After he's calm, help him try again in a more appropriate way.

Kids who are misbehaving need our help. And in order to help, we need to bring them closer, not send them away. Learning happens best in the context of connection.

By the way, there is one HUGE exception to this, and that is when you are in danger of losing your temper and lashing out. In that case, please protect your child by making sure she is in a safe place like her crib or room and then taking your own time out until you are calm enough to connect in a healthy way.

For much more information about these concepts, please check out:

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