Are Time-Outs Damaging To Toddlers? What Are Some Alternatives?

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
time-out for toddlers
Caleb Woods/Unsplash

Thinking back to our own childhoods, most of us can probably come up with at least a shortlist of ways our parents punished us that absolutely would not fly in 2021. And while some of these outdated discipline techniques are obvious (um, any type of corporal punishment), others that were once widely considered best practice have fallen out of favor — like giving a child a “time-out.” This once standard form of discipline used by parents, teachers, and babysitters alike is now controversial, as research has shown it to be ineffective and potentially harmful for a child. In fact, time-out for toddlers is no longer a common classroom punishment for acting out. If you’ve never really thought about the concept of putting a toddler in a time-out, here’s what to know about the controversial form of discipline, including alternative methods.

RELATED: Tips And Tactics For Effectively Disciplining Your Toddler

Time-Out for Toddlers: What Parents Should Know

Hopefully, it’s been a while since you’ve been put in time-out, so here’s a quick refresher. Time-outs involve removing a toddler or other child from the rest of a group — whether that’s a classroom, a playgroup, or at home with siblings — and having them stay alone for a set period of time before allowing them to rejoin the group. There are several traditional time-out methods, including having the kid sit or stand in the corner (usually facing the corner, so they can’t see what is going on with the rest of the group or attempt to interact with them), or in a designated “time-out chair” (which yes, can be in a corner or another low-sensory environment).

The basic idea behind a time-out is to decrease a certain type of behavior considered to be deviant, destructive, or disruptive, including tantrums, yelling, aggression, leaving their classroom seat too frequently, and saying words or phrases considered inappropriate. But the discipline technique is a lot more complicated than that and highly depends on things like a child’s age, the setting, and their behavior. Despite this nuance, time-outs all typically follow the same pattern of removing a child from a group, even if that’s not the best option in that circumstance. And that’s where we go wrong.

Effectiveness of Time-Outs

Research has shown that when used as intended, time-outs can be effective and don’t cause harm to a child. The problem is, simply using time-outs as a generic one-size-fits-all punishment is not using the technique as intended. This is something Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson discussed in their viral 2014 article in Time magazine titled ‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child, writing: “In most cases, the primary experience a time-out offers a child is isolation. Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves — a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection.” In addition to the solitary aspect, they also argue that time-outs are ineffective, and may make kids even angrier than they were before their punishment.

But Siegel and Bryson later clarified that they weren’t condemning all time-outs, and approve of the method if used correctly. So, what does that look like? Here are some guidelines from the Child Mind Institute:

  • Keep time-outs as short as possible (some advise one minute per their age, while others say three minutes maximum).
  • Make it clear to the child what they did to land themselves in time-out. This will help them learn from their actions and understand not to do it again.
  • Use time-outs sparingly — not for every minor offense.
  • But also use them consistently: If you are trying to work on a certain behavior, use time-outs every time that behavior occurs.
  • Give kids the opportunity to repair their behavior when they return from time-out.
  • Time-outs are best for kids between the ages of two and eight.
  • After their time-out is over, encourage your child to leave their negative energy in the time-out space. And make sure you do the same, Mama. Praise them for their positive behavior and keep the feelings associated with the time-out area a separate zone. This helps your child feel like they have the freedom to behave better without being judged by their past actions.
  • Do not put your child on time-out in the playroom. The time-out spot should be the most boring place in the house, like at the bottom of the steps or the kitchen.
  • Sometimes kids break out of time-out, which can be more frustrating than putting them in time-out. When this happens, you need a backup plan. Consider taking away some of their privileges, like screen time or going to the park.
  • Keep your cool when putting your kid in time-out. If you reach your breaking point, don’t let your child see that you’re cracking and avoid yelling.

Alternatives to Time-Out

If you aren’t too keen on the idea of time-outs as your only discipline option, don’t worry — there are plenty of others out there. A few of those include:

  • Stay with a child after they act out, instead of walking away and/or ignoring them at a time when they could use a connection.
  • Have a “time-in” where you (as the adult) empathize with the struggling kiddo and make sure they feel seen and heard as they calm down.
  • Let a child cry it out if they’re upset and experiencing big emotions.
  • Offer them a do-over in making the decision that resulted in their questionable behavior.
  • Change the space. If your child is giving you trouble in the toy room, switch to a different location or activity. A change in scenery may change their behavior. For example, switching spaces may sway your kid to leave behind a toy they didn’t want to share or were using to hurt others.
  • Read to them. Invest in books that talk about behavior or highlight characters who make mistakes and have trouble managing their emotions. Not only can books improve a child’s reading levels, but they can help correct behavior. The next time your kid misbehaves, read them one of these books. This calming activity is a gentle approach to helping them learn from their mistakes and make better decisions.

It’s difficult to figure out exactly how to discipline your child, but making sure that it’s rooted in empathy is a good start.

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