Why Timeouts Fail and What to do Instead

Timeout is a temporary, artificial, and inadequate solution to a real problem. Worse, it actually prevents us from seeing the real problem, because when kids feel judged and rejected, they tend to clam up (as we all do). Timeout closes the door on communication in the misguided hope that children will think about their behavior and, shamed, resolve to do better in the future.  The problem with this logic is that it assumes children are thinking reasonably when they are breaking the rules. The truth is that they’re usually acting on impulses that don’t make sense to them either. So, in effect, we’re expecting them to reason out the unreasonable while dealing with equal doses of shame and guilt, then miraculously come to their senses and henceforth conduct themselves with a more mature level of self-control.

This is a fantasy. It’s just not going to happen.

In truth, timeout is the exact opposite of what our children need when their behavior hits the skids. Defiance, aggression and other limit pushing behavior are our children’s way of letting us know their impulses have taken hold. Self-control has left the building, and they need to be able to depend on ours as back-up. This can only happen when we’re tuned in, not turning them away in anger or judgment.

With this crucial shift in perspective as a starting off point, and a clear understanding of our role, we successfully handle challenging behavior by following these steps:

  1. Focus on helping our children when they can’t help themselves.
  2. Set limits calmly and early, expect impulsivity.
  3. Be ready to physically follow through with limits by preventing unsafe or inappropriate behavior, heroically removing children from situations when they’re clearly unraveling (which is “time-in” rather than timeout, akin to what my son’s British soccer coach calls “taking a breather”).
  4. Accept and acknowledge feelings without judgment, so that children can trust us as their empathic leaders and themselves as good people.

Jaqueline shared the positive results of her shift in perspective:

I just want to share my story and to thank you for what you do.

My baby daughter was born with some complications and ended up in the NICU for just under two weeks, during which time we didn’t know if she would live. Obviously, this was a stressful and difficult time for all of us, including my 3-year-old son. My parents and sister flew in to help with him while we tried to balance time at the hospital and home.

Fortunately, the baby recovered, but she has been very high needs. My son’s demeanor changed, and for the first time he seemed to be experiencing a deep sadness that I couldn’t address. He began looking for every opportunity to hurt the baby, and although I have always disliked punishments, I began resorting to timeouts because I didn’t know what else to do.

Recently, I began listening to your podcast, and it has changed my entire perspective. My son is big for his age and very well spoken, so sometimes it’s hard to see him for the little person that he is. When I began to see that his actions were impulsive and that my job was not to correct them but to help him, it became much easier for me to calmly set limits.

One day he was particularly volatile, and we went through several rounds of “I won’t let you…” before I realized that he was tired. I carried him to his bed, validating his feelings while he kicked and screamed. When he refused to choose a book, I calmly chose one for him and we read it together.

Afterward he asked me to tell him the story of when he was born. I told him and then, with tears in his eyes, he said, “I couldn’t go to the hospital when Adelaide was born. They didn’t want kids there because they didn’t want the babies to get sick, but I wasn’t sick! I missed you and you were gone. You were always gone. And Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Rachel are not my parents! You are my parents, and I need my parents! And I hate that you have a baby because you can’t play with me,”

I was taken aback and choked out through my own tears, “I know. It was so hard. We had to be at the hospital all of the time, and I really missed you, too.” Then he said, “Let’s read another book,” and that was that. This was four months after she was born and was the first time he ever talked about it.

I know that the change in my response is what allowed him the space to voice these feelings. This moment was such an incredible gift. As you probably have guessed, the attempts at hurting the baby have diminished quite a bit, and I am feeling more confident in my parenting than I ever have.

I cannot express how incredibly grateful I am.

Best,

Jackie

Besides easing challenging behavior and fostering the healthy development of self-regulation, the beauty of this respectful discipline approach is the way it deepens our parent-child connection. As Jackie’s story illustrates, when we come from a place of trust and acceptance, we uncover the reasons behind impulsive behavior. We might be blessed to know our children’s innermost thoughts and feelings, perhaps even become their trusted confidants for life.

If not us, who will they share with?

 

For more, here’s my podcast episode: “Alternatives to Time Out”

I share more about bonding through discipline in

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

28 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Oh the tears. Beautiful!

  2. So, so important for children to feel safe to share their deepest feelings like that. Beautiful example of the power of using those four steps. So clear!

  3. What I would like to know is how to respond when a toddler screams and yells at parents!? I can stop him throwing and hitting but I can’t stop him yelling “go away daddy” if he is either upset with what I’ve asked him to do or not do. I find I feel like I need to correct him as it’s very disrespectful and it has become his way of disagreeing with us, but if I tell him I don’t want to be spoken to like that he just says it louder usually.

    1. Screaming, yelling, and “go away, Daddy” are actually age appropriate expressions of anger, so I would let those blow right by you and not make a fuss of any kind about them. In fact, I would acknowledge, “That makes you want me to go away! You don’t like that I stopped you from reaching for another cookie! I hear that.” I’d be very comfortable and confident in these responses.

      1. Thank you so much for your reply

    2. When my son pushes me away in anger, I try to respect that. I’ll say, “You want to be alone right now. I’m going to (stay on the other side of the room, sit here on the couch, stay in the hallway) so I can make sure you’re safe. You can let me know when you’re ready to ready to be around me again.” Then I read a book or work on my knitting or something that makes me look busy but allows me to make sure he is expressing his feelings in a safe way. Usually after a few minutes he’ll come over to see what I’m doing.

  4. The part that I’ve struggled with is what to do when you aren’t physically capable of picking the child up either because you are heavily pregnant or because they have just too big! Also, when you are looking after two children, it’s tricky as you have the younger one to look after too – if the older one has just hurt the younger one, the younger one is going to need some attention. I also noticed that it was times such as when I was changing the younger one’s nappy that the older one would pushing limits and there wasn’t much I could do in the middle of a nappy change!

    We did start resorting to time outs when our older child was four (despite having done our best to follow RIE ideas until then), because I reached my wits end for how to stop aggressive behaviour which emerged at that time. We only use them once in a blue moon now as the aggressive behaviour has pretty much waned, but I still feel at a loss as to what else to do! It’s so hard to physically stop him, but for some reason that I have failed to fathom when I ask him to go to his room for a minute or two to cool down he always does.

    1. avatar Hannah Shaw says:

      Wow, I could’ve written this myself. Shame there hasn’t been a response from Janet though! I have a 2yo and a 4mo. Mr 2 constantly gets in baby’s personal space, lies on top of her, hits her, throws things at her, pinches – you name it. If she is in reach of him he cannot leave her alone. It drives me mad and I lose my cool more frequently than I like and he goes to time out more than once a day. Which proves it doesn’t work. I just feel torn between my hurt, crying baby and correcting my son’s behaviour. After listening to this I will try much harder to block him from hitting etc. But it’s the same thing with nappy changes, even if I do it up high he’s still pulling/poking at her; if it’s on the floor he pretty much knees her in the head.

    2. I’ve had similar issues dealing with two (2 and 4 years old currently)– we’ve compromised where “time out” is just “please go sit on the stairs and calm a little and I will be right with you.” That gives me a moment to get whichever is the hurt one calmed and happy (and myself calm) while the other is still in sight (ok, and usually screaming because that’s what toddlers do)– then I go to the instigator and sit on the stairs with him and we talk about “you did xyz and we don’t do that. What can we do instead?” The 4 year old is good at “I did that because ____” and we just keep going until he gets to the point of “Ok, next time when he does this that I don’t like, I’ll do this instead.” Lots of repetition, but it’s slowly making progress!

  5. I would like advice for this too. I have 3 little ones all very close in age so I find it really hard to physically be able to prevent things the oldest does. Like hitting or pushing his younger sister while I’m nursing the baby.. I see it coming and will say something like please don’t hit her! But he does and I can’t prevent it and I end up getting really frustrated at him :/

  6. Great post – how incredible that the child was able to articulate all of those feelings at such a young age!
    Similarly to the previous two commenters, I have a 4.75 year old with whom I am trying to practice these strategies, but having a difficult time. When I ask him to do something, he’ll respond with “I want to do whatever I want to do” or “I’m not going to listen to you” etc. and lately when he gets angry with me, he tries to kick and hit me. His (newly) 3-year old brother hits, scratches, and sometimes bites him when he’s angry so I don’t know if my older son is trying out these behaviors because of that? My husband is concerned that we are being too lenient on my older son and was angry at me for not doing more when he was trying to kick/hit me while I was holding our 3-month-old son. I try to ask my older son to tell me how he’s feeling, but he just gets angry. I suppose I shouldn’t take his anger personally, but it is so difficult! I feel like I don’t know how to help him.

  7. I think getting a time out is the worst consequence a parent or a legal guardian can give to a kid. I’ve been to time outs throughout most of my life till I was 17. Any time I get into a time out, it’s because I was with my old respite provider. My parents would do the same at home except I had to sit or stand in the corner. Also at those times despite being told to look straight forward, I would cover my face with my hands and look down like I’m saying “What have I done wrong?” or “I don’t want to be in time out anymore. But someday when I get older, I can get time outs whenever I want.” Not only is time outs the worst consequence but also getting spanked, slapped in the hand or being sent to their bedroom are the worst ever.

  8. Punishment does not work. It leads to a weaker relationship, poor modeling, and children are not comfortable in the environment. “Because it is often a split-second reaction, punishment is an adult release rather than part of a strategy to help a child learn self-control (Browne and Gordon, 2013, p. 59).

  9. Hi Janet – my wife and I have been reading and listening to ur advice on children . We try to set safe boundaries and have compassion during outbursts . Obviously we are not always perfect . But ever since our youngest was born our 3 yr old started wining and crying a lot and has demonstrated much more aggression lately . He is 5 now and his younger brother is 2 . His wining and crying over everything from rocks in his shoes to not getting what he wants has gotten out of control . I try to show empathy and understanding ; but now I wonder if we are encouraging it ? He told me yesterday he does have big feelings all the time . He got that saying from your book on tape . We would tell him on small issues ” wow those are big feelings ” we don’t spank and rarely do timeouts . We do remove him from situations during or before full meltdowns but are struggling with our very sensitive child . I’m running out of ways to alter his perspective – so he doesn’t cry over everything and have a hard time in life because everything is such a big deal for him . He was so perfect until 3 and he still is a sweet kid . It’s just these last two years have been hard and now that we are moving it seems to have gotten worse ….please send some encouraging feedback . Thanks for all your help this far – I do believe in peaceful parenting .

    1. Hi Ryan! I would actually focus less on empathy and understanding and more on accepting and allowing, just letting the feelings be. He can handle them! Accepting and allowing feelings is not an active process that you need to put any energy into… in fact, putting energy and effort into his outbursts can be very unproductive. It sounds like you are recognizing that the feelings are not actually about the rocks in his shoes, etc. They are about larger issues and normal and healthy for him to pass through, so I would normalize these emotional reactions for yourselves as much as possible. It’s interesting that you mention “big feelings”, because that is actually a term I have never used and wouldn’t. I dislike it because, to me, it is early childhood lingo that talks down to children. We wouldn’t use that term to describe anyone other than a child. I prefer “strong feelings”, which is a phrase we might use to describe our own feelings as adults. (I think you might be confusing me with another parenting advisor 🙂 ) Our words matter, because they help to keep us in a genuine person-to-person relationship with our child.

      1. Thank you for your quick response – so during outbursts about small issues , you would just say “those are strong feelings ” and that you understand why they are mad and leave it at that ? Also how would you recommend talking to him about hitting or screaming ? As always thank you for your help !

        1. Sorry not say “that I understand them” just allow them to take place , while being there if they need more help.?

          1. Yes! And if you can’t be there at that moment, just say something like, “I hear you! I need to go do such-and-such and I’ll be back.” In other words let go of these outbursts so that you don’t become emotionally involved yourself.

  10. I could really use some specific direction regarding hitting, kicking, and pushing that is so intense that I can’t stop it. My 2 year old is so strong and has always been unbelievably physical and active, even in the womb. I can’t stop his hitting – even if I pick him up or offer comfort or connection time, he keeps hitting and kicking. I try to address the underlying need, but he just spirals out of control and addressing the original need doesn’t help. I’ve tried just walking away (and telling him why) but he literally chases me around the house hitting kicking me. I’ve resorted to time outs because it’s absolutely the only thing that I know of that can get him to stop hurting me, because he is buckled into the chair. But I hate doing it!! He is so strong. What can I do instead? I don’t want to just let him hurt me, but can’t figure out what else to do. I hope to hear from you, thank you so much!!

    1. p.s. one thing I thought of was getting him a punching bag and then when he’s hitting me I put up a gate somewhere so that the only thing he has available is the punching bag – but I honestly don’t know if that’s okay.

    2. I have no suggestions but just wanted to say that this is also a huge issue in my home. I have a very strong 2.5 yo that gets very physical when he is upset. Im interested to hear what Janet has to say. I hope she replies.

  11. Wow. My baby is only one but I thought I’d read ahead for the toddler period and now I’m terrified. Thank God for this excellent forum and ask if you excellent mums.

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