Time Out: Why it’s a problem and what to do instead
I can still remember when I decided that time outs were not right for my family. I can almost pinpoint the exact moment.
My daughter was standing in one. She was around 2 years old. I think I had put her there because she had thrown her lunch on the floor and yelled at me that she didn’t want it. So I had diligently placed her in the time out and tried to walk away, just like all the parenting books said I should.
But she was standing there, tears streaming down her face, with her little arms outstretched, crying, “Mama! Hug, mama!” And my heart broke.
So I scooped her up and I hugged her tight.
And that was her first and last time out.
I knew there had to be a better way. So I started reading everything I could on positive discipline. I discovered the concept of the time in. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It wasn’t just me. There was a reason that time out felt so damn wrong to me. And there were other parents who felt the same way.
The problem with time outs
Time outs are often recommended as a gentle alternative to physical punishment. And this makes sense on the surface. There’s no physical violence involved, and children have a chance to calm down and learn a lesson about their behaviour, right?! Well, no. Not quite.
You see, the problem with time outs are that they depend on separation from, and withdrawal of attention by, a primary caregiver during a time of distress. Ask any child and they’ll tell you: time outs are a fear based punishment. Children perceive them as a withdrawal of love.
They are also based on an incorrect assumption – that the child is in control of their behaviour and has made a choice to act in this way. They did the wrong thing, and now they need to experience the consequences.
The problem is, of course, that this is not the way the brain works.
The stress response
Human brains are very predictable. When humans perceive a threat in their environment, a strong emotional response occurs. We feel fear, anxiety, worry, anger, confusion, jealousy, disappointment, frustration – even guilt or shame! This causes the amygdala – the “emotional control centre” of the brain – to get fired up.
A chain of events then occurs (called the fight or flight response) that prepares the body to respond to the perceived threat. During this time, the area of the brain responsible for thinking, reasoning, planning and all of those important rational and logical actions, goes offline. This is a time for doing, not thinking!
Misbehaviour vs stress behaviour
Much of what we consider to be “misbehaviour” in children, is actually stress behaviour. It is the fight or flight response in action.
A meltdown is a symptom of a nervous system under stress. The demands of the situation have exceeded your child’s ability to cope with it. Their fight or flight response has been triggered, and they are experiencing a big emotional reaction. This means they are no longer using their logical “thinking” brain – they are literally unable to access this area. Instead, they are using their more reactive “emotional brain”.
With emotions in charge, the brain is unable to plan, reason, or make decisions. It doesn’t think – it acts from a place of fear and dysregulation and your child has very little control over their actions during this time. Punishing them for something they have very little control over is not very useful. It adds further stress to an already overwhelmed brain.
So let’s talk about ditching time outs. Here are the 3 main reasons to say goodbye to time outs for good:
1. They’re disconnecting
Time outs separate kids from caregivers while they are experiencing distress. This damages our child’s trust in us and erodes our relationship with them. In addition to that, everything we know about the brain tells us that while the nervous system is under stress, it requires connection. This connection sends a signal to the brain that it is safe. The stress response is switched off, and your child is able to calm down.
2. They don’t teach self regulation skills
Stressed brains are unable to learn. Remember, this area of the brain is inactive during times of stress. Since time outs separate children from caregivers, they actually increase the stress on an already stressed system, preventing your child from learning. Your child may eventually calm down on their own, but they won’t learn strategies to self regulate or to prevent a similar situation from occurring again.
3. They don’t improve behaviour
Research has shown that time outs are only effective at getting children to co-operate temporarily. In fact, children who were disciplined with time outs tended to display more misbehaviour, not less. They also had poorer mental health compared to children who hadn’t experienced time outs.
So what is a time in?
A time in is a break, much like a time out. It is a chance for a child to express their emotions, calm their mind and body, and learn some new self regulation skills. But unlike a time out, it is taken WITH a caregiver, who supports and guides them through this process.
Remember, a stressed brain needs connection, support and safety. To switch off the stress response, the brain needs to feel SAFE. Kids are biologically programmed to feel safe with their parents and carers. Which means our kids cannot learn to regulate themselves unless we first take time to connect with them and support them through their big feelings. This is co-regulation, and it’s the first step towards self regulation. One cannot happen without the other.
The calm down space
Now of course, a time in can be taken anywhere. But setting up a calm down space can make the process of supporting your child through their big emotions much easier, by ensuring all the tools your child needs are close at hand.
A calm down space is a designated area in your home or classroom. A space for a child to retreat to when they are feeling overwhelmed and need help to calm down. It is a safe space for kids to express their big feelings. It is NOT a space for them to be disciplined or punished. It is also not a space we send them to for a set number of minutes. It is a space for them to take their time in. It is a space for you and your child to co-regulate, in order for them to learn how to self regulate.
You can read more about how to set up a calm down space and what to include in it in this blog post here. And to support you and your child with this process, I’ve also created the Mindful Little Calm Down Kit. This printable kit contains everything you need to set up a calm down space. Feelings charts, calm down cards, posters, mindful breathing exercises, fun mindfulness activities and exercises to improve self awareness.
This kit is more than a kit though. It’s an entire system designed to help you go from overwhelmed and frustrated by your child’s big emotions, to responding calmly and confidently to your child in their most difficult moments. Check out what others have to say about the kit here.
But doesn’t a time in just reward bad behaviour?
If you’re used to parenting from the traditional rewards/punishment based framework, it can be easy to conceptualise it like this. Transitioning over to a positive discipline, connection based framework is tricky, because of our own history and social conditioning. We need to unlearn a lot of old beliefs and ideas.
But let’s look at it this way – when you become angry or overwhelmed, do you sometimes take a bit of time away to regain your composure and calm yourself down? Maybe you go to your bedroom and take a few deep breaths, or take a quick walk around the block? This is not your reward for feeling overwhelmed or angry is it? It’s a way for you to cope with your feelings. You have learned to use these coping strategies over many years and with lots of practice. Our kids, with their still developing brains, don’t know how to do this yet. And they need our help to learn it.
The time in, and the calm down corner that supports it, is about teaching self regulation skills, not encouraging or rewarding bad behaviour. You will still enforce boundaries, and teach your child appropriate ways to behave in different situations. But you will do it with empathy and love, and with an understanding of their neurological development that means your expectations will be a match for their age and ability.
Time ins are a long term strategy
My daughter is almost 10 now. And when she has a problem, she comes to me with it. She trusts me to listen. To give her a hug. To hold space for her emotions. She knows I won’t banish her to her room. She knows I won’t be dismissive, or try to silence her. She feels safe to express ALL of her emotions with me.
And I know that as she grows, and the challenges she faces in her life also grow, that she will continue to turn to me, and not away from me. And in those moments, I will know I’ve done my job as a parent.
That’s why I’ve created the Mindful Little Calm Down Kit. Because I want every parent, and every child to experience that same meaningful connection. I want you to feel confident that you are doing the very best for your child. And I want your child to ALWAYS understand how very loved they are.
P.S. Want to try before you buy? Sign up below to get a set of 20 calm down cards to try with your kids. These are a sample of the strategies included in the Mindful Little Calm Down Kit and are designed to be used absolutely anywhere (no more shopping centre meltdowns!).
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.