Time Outs Doesn't Have To Be A Cruel Punishment

There’s A Better Way To Handle Time Outs

September 23, 2021 Updated September 24, 2021

Young boy having a time out
Scary Mommy and Daniel Grill/Getty

Time outs have gotten a bad rap in recent years, especially in “gentle parenting” or “attachment parenting” circles. In 2014, Time published an article citing the various reasons why time outs might damage children. It published yet another similar article in 2016.  An article on Aha Parenting went beyond calling time outs harmful and labeled all punishment as harmful. “Any time you punish a child,” the article read, “you make him feel worse about himself and you erode the parent-child relationship.”

The Aha Parenting article recommends literally sitting with a kid who is having an epic meltdown and letting them know you’re there for their “big feelings.” To be fair, in some circumstances, this can be useful. I myself have used “the heartbeat hug” countless times to get my tantruming kids to calm down when they were struggling with too-big emotions. I can verify the effectiveness of this technique, and I do prefer it over a time out when possible.

In general, though, I’m calling bullshit on time outs being harmful, and I’m also calling bullshit on them being ineffective.

First off, blanket advice to “sit with your child and validate their emotions” is way, way too simplistic. An older child who is throwing a massive tantrum — hitting, kicking, scratching, throwing things — because they want to make a show of their anger does not need a parent to validate their histrionics. They need to know that 1) it’s okay to be angry but this is not an acceptable way to express anger and 2) when they choose to calm down, you will be there to talk and problem-solve.

A couple of crucial side notes: If you don’t think kids are capable of throwing a tantrum purely to put on a show, you either have naturally compliant unicorn children or you don’t have kids at all. I have distinct memories of screaming and flailing in my childhood bed for the express purpose of trying to manipulate my mom into feeling sorry for me, or “being” sorry. As in, “If I scream long enough, she’ll be sorry. She’ll regret telling me what to do! *evil villain laugh*”

Also, I’m not talking about kids dealing with PTSD. That’s a whole different ball game that merits a different set of techniques and professional intervention.

My point is, I used time out with my kids, and it both helped them learn to self-regulate, and our relationship could not be better. At ages 15 and 11, they are good students, kind, thoughtful, creative, confident, attached yet independent — all the “positive” outcomes that any psychologist conducting a study would note.

My sister and her children have had the same experience. Every one of my friends who maintains a tight relationship with their older kids has used some form of time out as they raised their kids.

That’s because, along with time out and other logical consequences, we implement a hundred other positive/gentle/authoritative parenting tactics. We listen to and validate our kids’ feelings. We model controlling our own big feelings. We frequently discuss and role-play various scenarios for how to manage uncomfortable, angry feelings about tough situations or rules with which we’d rather not comply. We talk about how all feelings are valid, but we also explain why it’s not okay to drag down everyone in a half-mile radius with your anger.

I have witnessed other parents “validate” their child’s feelings while said child released ear-splitting rage-screams that made everyone else in the room cringe in pain. I want my kids to know that the people with whom they share space have as much right to exist in a (mostly) peaceful environment as they have the right to be frustrated or angry.

Of course, all of the foregoing was anecdotal — i.e., not scientific. Why should anyone care what I think? I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even a parenting expert. I’m just a parent with well-rounded kids who may have gotten that way not because of my parenting, but in spite of it.

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Except, science backs me up.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends time outs as an effective discipline tool. Those articles published by Time? In response to the 2014 article, doctors Siegel and Bryson, who were referenced at length in the article, issued a correction on their own website (the page no longer exists), saying that Time misrepresented what they said. In fact, Dr. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, stated that “some varieties of time-out are appropriate — namely, those that are brief and infrequent, those that involve ‘care and kindness,’ and those that do not isolate a child.” Siegel clarified that what he had been warning about was that, in practice, time outs are often administered inappropriately.

In 2019, the University of Michigan conducted a study which again confirmed that time outs are not harmful. Lead author Rachel Knight, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital agreed with Dr. Siegel, clarifying that when administered properly in the appropriate context, timeouts can be very effective. Time even published their own article covering the 2019 University of Michigan study, changing their tune and noting that time outs are not harmful.

So, how does one “properly administer” a time out then? Here’s a summary of what the aforementioned experts say parents should be doing:

1. Plan ahead.

It won’t do you, your child, or the peace of your household any good to suddenly shriek at your misbehaving child that she has to go sit on the bottom step by herself for four minutes in a time out. Instead, if you’re planning to start implementing time outs, let your child know well in advance, very clearly, what your goals are. You could say something like, “I love you very much and I want to help you learn how to manage your big feelings. So sometimes I may ask you to take a time out for a few minutes. This is not to make you feel bad — it’s to give you space to calm down. Afterward, once you’re calm, we’ll problem-solve together.”

See how, already, time out doesn’t look like some big scary punishment?

2. Breathe.

When the wheels have come off and your child has lost (or is about to lose) their shit, give yourself a moment to assess the situation. Is a time out necessary? Or would a heartbeat hug, a clever/humorous redirection, or a stern warning suffice? Perhaps your kid is hangry and just needs a snack. It’s okay to take a beat to consider your options.

For example, in moments when my daughter was younger and would get snippy and rude with me, before things could escalate further, I’d say something like, “Excuse me. I have spoken with nothing but kindness toward you, and yet you are speaking to me with a mean, hateful tone. I deserve to be spoken to with kindness. I’m happy to chat if something’s bothering you, but I won’t allow myself to be spoken to that way.” This usually snapped her out of her shitty tone and avoided a time out.

3. When you need to use time out, remain calm and be clear about what’s happening and why.

Of course, a stern warning doesn’t always suffice. Each of my kids have had moments when they were so beyond reasoning that the best solution in the moment for everyone was a time out. As every parent knows, sometimes we need the space apart to calm down just as much as our kid does. You can be an attached parent and still need moments away from your kid to regroup.

When my kids were little, we set timers to clock their time outs. Later, I altered my approach to allow them some control. I’d say, “As soon as you’re ready to be kind, come back and play with us” or “When you’re ready to control your temper, we would be happy for you to rejoin the game.”

A key point: When the child returns, tell them thank you and act really, really excited. Praise their maturity and move on without a lecture. You might revisit behavioral expectations at a later time, but in the moment that a child has successfully managed their own behavior and made the choice to return with a more considerate attitude, that’s a huge win that merits acknowledgement.

4. Be consistent.

If you’re not accustomed to using time outs and you’ve not generally maintained a consistent method for dealing with your kid’s misbehavior, learning to implement effective time outs will likely come with a few hiccups. In the beginning it can be tempting to shout “That’s it! Time out!” at your child the moment they do something irritating. Resist this. Revert to step 2 — breathe, and consider whether the situation does in fact warrant a time out. Time outs should be consistent, as in, applied as you’ve said you would apply them, but infrequent, as in, not used for every minor infraction.

That said, it’s okay to make mistakes. Any one mistake you make is not going to ruin your child and set them on a path to delinquency or a miserable adulthood. Your overall approach and the behavior you model on a daily basis — the behavior towards others that your children actually witness — will have a more profound impact in the long-term.

5. Don’t expect instant compliance.

Time outs are not a quick fix, and they’re not meant to be. Managing a child’s behavior is never as simple as implementing one tried-and-true technique on one single occasion and all of a sudden the undesirable behavior magically disappears.

But time outs, used correctly, and combined with all the other aspects of parenting (modeling, connecting, validating, etc), over time will teach children emotional regulation by showing in real-time what more adults could stand to learn: In the heat of the moment, sometimes we all need a time out.

One caveat is that if you’re just beginning to implement time outs, your child’s behavior may worsen before it improves. This is normal and expected as they test their boundaries. Remind yourself to keep your cool and use time outs as you’ve planned — calmly, not with yelling and gritted teeth out of frustration that you’re not getting instant compliance.

6. Loop back, reconnect, reattach, discuss — whatever you want to call it.

Sometime after a time out, and it doesn’t need to be immediately after, sit and discuss with your child why they had a time out. Strategize alternative scenarios for the next time a similar situation arises. Practice techniques they can do to get themselves in a good headspace before it comes to needing a time out. Deep breaths, counting down from 10, or removing themselves from a situation that is getting heated, like an argument with a sibling.

7. Point out the good.

Between time outs, make sure to notice when your child is behaving the way you’ve told them you expect them to behave. “You took your plate to the sink the first time I asked and had a great attitude about it. You rock!” Validate tough emotions while coaching how to express them in appropriate ways. “I could tell you were super annoyed that your brother beat you at Uno, but you held it together and even remembered to say ‘good game.’ You should be so proud of yourself.” Encouraging the good stuff is every bit as important as discouraging the bad.

Time outs are not about abandoning a despondent child by themself in a dark room until they cease crying. They’re not about punishing or shaming a child. They’re not about coercing a child into “obeying” by withholding your love and affection.

Timeouts are about pausing the action — helping a child learn to set aside a moment to get themself in a more thoughtful headspace. Kids as young as two years old can grasp the concept of needing a couple of minutes to breathe and reset. And let’s be honest — we parents could use a time out now and then too. Taking a beat to regroup is never a bad thing.