Does “Time Out” Need a Time Out?

Whether you are a new parent, a seasoned caregiver, or can remember your own experience, we are all familiar with “time out.” New research indicates time out may not be the most effective approach for all children. In case you are unsure of what time out is, it is the social and/or environmental separation of a child from the current situation so that the child can evaluate their unacceptable behavior.

Some parents and caregivers are seeking alternative methods to time out that may be a better fit for their child. Research indicates time out can be damaging to children because the isolation creates a barrier in connecting with others, when that connection is actually what many children seek. The creation of being alone could change the way children internalize their time out. Essentially children could learn to be afraid, making their emotional response to time out more extreme. Lastly, children are learning how to behave and practice self-control by watching their caregivers. By supplying a time out, we could be isolating the learning process of emotional coping.

There are several alternatives to the time out method. The first example is naming the child’s feelings when they are acting out. They can be overwhelmed, tired, hungry, scared, insecure, or stressed. When the child reacts negatively, like deciding to throw a toy across the room at their brother, guess the emotion and label it. For example, “You’re unhappy because your brother doesn’t want to play too. You must feel really mad that he won’t play, but we don’t throw or scream to get what we want. It’s dangerous to throw toys.” The point of this alternative gives the child open, calm communication, and a label to their intense feeling. The child may still need an outlet for that anger. Offer it. That offer could be a pillow that they can hit for release.

Sometimes outbursts are just to obtain your undivided attention, also known as time in. Doesn’t it seem that the moment we are trying to get all our daily errands in, the outbursts begin? It’s not a coincidence that your stress level increased and therefore so has your child’s. We are social creatures and can feed off each other’s emotions. The simple act of getting down to a child’s level and embracing them in a hug can calm you down and sometimes also your child. We release dopamine, a stress-relieving neurotransmitter, during positive physical touch. Your touch could release some tension and give that one-to-one time that may have been needed. During your embrace, tell the child something as simple like, “I see you’re frustrated that we’re so busy today.” They now have your attention and your understanding of their feelings.

Has a child ever started crying over something you thought was insignificant? Another alternative is to let them cry. Give them their moment to feel those emotions. Offer space but also acceptance. Tell them, “I’m going to be right over here if you need me. Have your moment but know I’m right here.” Sometimes we just need to “let it go” and children do, too. A few tears can be cleansing. As the caregiver, you’re staying emotionally attached, offering support but allowing space.

Lastly, there are consequences. It’s a cold, frigid day and your child refuses to wear a coat. You have asked but they still refuse to wear their coat. If safety is not compromised, let the child learn the consequences of not wearing their coat. The simple, “I told you so approach” may work for older children. Just let natural consequences be your disciplinarian. If you have a younger child, let their favorite toy guide them in the right direction. For example, Minnie Mouse tells my daughter to wear her coat quite often. Minnie outranks us on many occasions, but that coat is on.

Time out and other alternatives are just tools in your tool belt to help modify undesirable behavior. They are also learning opportunities to teach children what each emotion is and how to cope with them. Set limits of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and do so calmly. Focus on helping the child work in those acceptable limits. When the child crosses into unacceptable behavior, find the appropriate tool, stay calm, and work through that storm. Giving them a calm but firm demeanor teaches them lifelong coping skills that will far surpass your days of tantrums.