Do you use ‘time-outs’ with your kids when they misbehave?

Most of us intend for time-outs to be a gentle strategy that gives our children a break and helps them learn. Or maybe we only use a time-out when we’re at the “end of our rope”–we’ve already tried everything we can think of, and we don’t know what else to do. 

We want our kids to take some time to reflect on their behavior and our hope is that they will sit and think about what they can do differently next time. 

The problem is that time-outs don’t actually work that way (nor do any other form of punishment.) Even when you look at child development research, time-outs are NOT shown to be an effective parenting tool.

Here’s why…


4 Reasons Time-Outs Don’t Work

Reason #1: No child sits in a timeout and thinks about how to improve themselves or how to do better next time…

Because a child in a time-out is mad and sad.

They’re thinking about how to “get back” at the person who is responsible for making them feel that way (“I’m mad at mom because she made me sit in this chair” and “I’m mad at brother because he hit me”). 

And kids in a time-out are thinking about how to not get caught next time. 

These mad and sad feelings may cause kids to hide their behavior and feel ashamed, which is the opposite of what we want them to learn.

Here’s the part that a lot of parents don’t realize…

Kids who act out or misbehave were really just doing their best all along (even if sometimes a child’s “very best” means that they are crying, kicking, screaming, or having a meltdown). 


Reason #2: The child was doing the best they could

Kids (even young ones) don’t want to hit (or kick, or scream, or cry). They don’t like hitting. They know that hitting hurts people, and they don’t want to hurt the people they care about.

“Misbehavior” happens when the demands of the situation exceed the child’s skills to respond adaptively. 

Said another way… Your child is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time

“Kids do well when they can, when they can’t it’s because of unsolved problems and lagging skills.” – Dr. Ross Greene

If we rely on time-outs in parenting–our kids miss out on a chance to learn, and we miss out on a chance to teach.

The child is doing the best they can even if they use a meltdown “on purpose”, “to get what they want” or “to manipulate”. Regardless of the context, a meltdown suggests lagging skills, and a need for more support. The solution is to build a child’s social-emotional skills after the meltdown subsides. Once a child is ready, you can teach them how to explain what they want, how to calmly negotiate, and give them techniques they can use to calm down when they’re frustrated.


Reason #3: Time-outs–or any other form of punishment–are a distraction from learning

A simple way of defining “punishment” is taking away something that our child wants (“you don’t get to play with this”) or giving them something that they don’t want (a time-out).

Punishment distracts kids from learning because it causes a child’s brain to go into a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.

A brain that is in “fight or flight” is not ready to learn–only a calm brain is ready to learn.

We want our kids to be calm so that they can think through what happened, problem-solve, and maybe even prevent the situation from happening again. Only a calm and regulated brain has the ability to consider how to respond differently the next time, without shame or defensiveness. 


Reason #4: Time-outs hurt our relationship with our kids

Our kids look to us to provide safety, protection, and understanding. Kids want us to know that there are times when even “their best” looks like “their worst”. If we’re giving them a time-out when they are trying their best, then kids don’t feel understood.

Kids who feel well, tend to act well. 

Kids who feel well tend to be kind, generous, thoughtful, and considerate. 

Kids don’t tend to behave better if they feel bad about themselves. (The same is true for adults!) 


Effective Alternatives: What To Do Instead of Time-Outs

“But if I don’t give a time-out, isn’t that teaching my child that what they did was okay?”

This is a concern that a lot of parents have and it’s understandable.

Here’s the short answer: Kids probably already know that what they did was hurtful.

And if they don’t yet know that they hurt someone (and that hurting other people is wrong and not likely to get them what they want in the long term), then the conversations that you have with them afterward are the best way for them to learn. 

Instead of putting your child in time-out, you can:

  • Teach them different things to say or do in that situation
  • Show them different ways to advocate for themselves
  • Talk about how they can calm their feelings
  • Help them understand what might be happening for the other person and to have empathy for others
  • Help them understand their own feelings and behavior (without shame or embarrassment) and to have compassion for themselves 
  • Show them how to diffuse a situation, how to leave or take a break, how to be assertive and stay safe, and how to go to an adult for help 

When in doubt about when and where to start… 

Ask yourself: “Is my child ready to learn? Am I ready to teach them?”

If you can answer yes to those questions then, simply ask your child:

“What was your good reason for doing [X behavior]?”

Give your child some empathy, remembering that you don’t have to agree with what they’ve said in order to empathize with them.

Then, after they feel understood and seen, do some solution-based brainstorming together:

“What could you do next time this happens?”

Now, I’m curious about you: Does this post change the way you view your kids’ misbehavior and how to handle it? Let us know in the comments.