What to Do Instead of Time Out

In this episode: Janet shares a recent exchange with a mom requesting “alternatives to time out when natural consequences aren’t appropriate.” The parent wonders how to intervene with her toddler when she is possessive and aggressive around other kids.

Transcript of “What to Do Instead of Time Out”

Hi, This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled.

This is how Megan describes her situation and this was a little back and forth that we had on Facebook:

“Hi, Janet. I’ve been searching for a particular answer in your articles but I’m struggling to find it. I’m a first-time mom to an 18-month-old daughter and curious as to what the alternative to time out should be after a child is continually doing something unsafe, hurting another child, etc. In times when a natural consequence is always evident. Thank you.”

So then I replied, also on Facebook:

“Hi Megan, I would kindly remove her from the situation but keep her with you rather than sending away. Can you share specifics?”

And then Megan responded:

“Thank you so much for your help. One situation recently was during a play date with another little girl her age at our house. She gets very possessive with her toys, and was swatting at the little girl when she’d get near her toys, nothing in particular, or when her friend would sit in her chair. She would grab her shirt and literally try to drag her off. We’d say, ‘I won’t let you hit.’ And redirect, but it kept happening. What do we do in that situation?”

All right, now first of all, generally the reason I replied the way I did the first time is that… imagine what it feels like to be a tiny little child and you get sent off to time out, or even an older child. “Go over there, time out.” What do you think would go through your mind there? Also, considering that children this age are very much in the moment. So what I believe goes on in a child’s mind there… Well, first of all, studies show that this is a very stressful situation for children, for young children. So they’re feeling the stress of the rejection of the parent, of the message, “You did something bad and I’m mad at you right now., I don’t like what you did and you need to go have a punishment.”

So that’s really all the child knows when we use that kind of strategy. The child is not really learning how to behave differently. Instead of the most important message of all which is that, my parents are on my team and they’re always going to be on my side to help and guide me and when my behavior crosses the line of appropriateness they’re going to be there to help rein me in.

Those are the things, ideally, we want our children to learn in these situations. It is through the comfort they feel in our relationship that they will need less and less to behave in these kinds of ways. Most of these behaviors come out of a sense of discomfort or lack of safety or stress. So we want to always keep the bigger picture in mind. That overriding message that we want to give our child in any situation which is, “I’m on your team, I’m here to help, not to punish.” This is why punishments don’t work in my opinion.

If a child is being overwhelmingly unsafe and we’re not able to help intervene in that moment with the behavior — the child is just going off right and left — then yes, we may have to remove our child from the situation, depending on where it is, and allow him/her to melt down safely with us. Because they’ve gone into that place of no return. They’ve gone, even when they have more subtle behavior. It’s as if they are out of themselves. Their brain is not really working anymore. Their emotions have taken over. Their impulses have taken over.

So when that happens, it’s kind and loving to take our child somewhere a little more private where they can completely unravel without the world seeing. If we’re at the park or in the market, if we can help them get to the car. This might mean we are picking up a child who is kicking and screaming. Still, this is a loving response.

Some people call this time in. “I’m taking you aside because you are showing me you are way beyond reason and you are unsafe. I’m here to help you, I’m here to keep you safe.”

So then I was able to ask Megan for specifics. And her situation actually, well, the specifics she shared with me, don’t require a big taking your child out of the situation. These are just minor behaviors that actually make a lot of sense and most children this age have these feelings of possessiveness in their own house, especially. Possessiveness of their stuff.

One wonderful way to prevent this kind of behavior and help your child feel autonomous in this situation when, Yikes, I don’t have any control and somebody’s touching my stuff, and they’re in my chair. It’s an overwhelming feeling of, you know, losing control, and children this age don’t have control over that much, their bodies are changing, their emotions are shifting, they feel this push pull of becoming a little more independent while still desperately needing their parents. It’s a very intense time, that’s why we write so much about it and talk so much about it. So they have their stuff and now somebody’s touching their stuff and it can put them over the edge, you know, especially if they’re not at their best for other reasons. Maybe there’s a new baby in the family. Maybe they’re tired or hungry. Things like that will make it worse.

But to help the child come into these situations of a friend visiting with the best possible setup, I would let the child know the plan ahead of time so that we’re a team. You’re a part of this. “Your friend so and so is coming over to play today and will probably want to use some of your stuff. Is there anything here that you feel comfortable that we could put out for both of you?” That can help a lot.

Now, will that prevent your child from getting possessive? We can’t count on that at all, but it at least gives a better possibility for that.

Then when she does show this kind of behavior, intervene minimally while interpreting for the children, helping them understand what’s going on and helping her know that her desires, you’re not judging those, there’s nothing wrong with those.

We all need our desires and our feelings acknowledged but children this age especially do. Because these are parts of ourselves we don’t control. Any of us, we don’t control it, it’s part of us.

So if somebody says, “What’s wrong with you for doing that behavior? What’s wrong with you for wanting to have all the toys that other child is here to share with you? What’s the matter with you?” Then the child feels personally judged and feels the lack of acceptance, which is going to create less pleasant behavior all the way around because, you know, if we’re not happy with ourselves, we’re going to not be our best with people.

It’s as if a car cuts us off on the freeway. We get furious, maybe want to kill that person, want to wring their neck. We’re mature so we have self-regulation and we don’t follow through with these desires and feelings. But we’re not bad for having the feelings. There’s nothing wrong with having that feeling. We are just old enough to know not to act on it.

Children need to know that we accept them having their feelings and their desires. So the way that would look in this situation…

Megan said that her daughter was swatting at the little girl when she’d get near her toys. If I saw that happening once with my child, I would just come close and be ready so that can’t happen again. Just put your hand there.

Say you missed it the first time and that the other girl or boy reacts, then I would say, “Oh, oh, that’s not safe. I see you didn’t like that.” To that child, and to your child, “Looks like you don’t want her using that.” And your hand is there so she cannot hurt or hit.

“Looks like you don’t want her using that and it makes you feel like hitting. I’m not going to let you hit.”

But you’re there. You’re there helping her understand what’s going on so she can learn from the situation. And again, learn the most important lesson, which is that, My parents are on my side, they’re here to help me when I cross the line.

You could even say if this continues, “You’re really having a hard time with her touching your stuff, that’s really hard for you.”

That might be enough for the child to feel better in the situation.

Okay they get where I’m coming from. They understand what I’m feeling. Oftentimes that’s enough for the behavior to stop. Not always, but often.

So, if it continues, “Yeah, you really don’t like that. I’m here, I’m here to stop you.”

And then maybe to the other girl, “Yeah, you want to use those and it looks like Josie is having a hard time.”

Your hand is there. You are ready to stop any actions that cross the line. But all the feelings have to be okay with us.

So then the other example she gave was when her friend would sit in her chair, she would grab her shirt. Right, we’re not going to let her grab her shirt because that’s harmful, hurtful behavior. So we acknowledge, “Wow,” (and your hand is there so she can’t grab the shirt, maybe she gets one in before you’re close enough). You come over, “I saw, you want to grab her shirt, and you don’t want her there.”

And then to the other one, “Looks like, yeah, she’s trying to pull on your shirt, I’m not going to let her do that. You don’t want her on that chair at all.” A very comfortable low key, accepting response while preventing the behaviors.

That’s how children can learn to communicate in more appropriate ways, and that shows your child, I’m there, I’ve got your back, I’m not going to let you do stuff like that, but I’m not going to get mad at you and send you away because you make a mistake you know, or your impulse gets the better of you.

So it’s really about the way we perceive our children and their behavior.

If we see it as what’s the matter with this girl? she’s really acting terribly and you know, she needs to be told how bad she is, then we’re going to punish or we’re going to yell, or we’re going to express our anger and annoyance.

One of the analogies I’ve used is sleepwalking. My son sleepwalks. He also sits up in the middle of the night and starts talking and it’s very funny. If I’m there and I hear something I try to write it down because he says the most hilarious things.

But, there was one time, clearly, I remember, that he was walking down the hall and this is the second floor of our house, and there’s this steep set of stairs. We didn’t have a gate over these stairs anymore because this boy is now eight years old at this time and he comes walking down the hallway after he had gone to bed, and I was confused and said something to him and then he mumbled, “I need TV,” or some bizarre thing and then I realized oh my gosh, this guy is sleepwalking and he could be falling down the stairs.

So I had to stop him and I had to turn him around and say, “Okay, yeah, you’re going back to your room,” and he’s like, “No, no, no,” and he starts punching me and wrestling me and I’m just trying to contain him there. I’m not going to get angry at him for that behavior, he’s sleepwalking. I’m just going to help keep him safe and get him back to bed.

It’s not that young children are sleepwalking, but their behavior is unconscious just like a sleepwalker. Their behavior is not reasonable. It is just coming out of them, they don’t know why. They know they shouldn’t do it, but they don’t know why. So being able to see that sleepwalking child that just needs some help and containment, not an overreaction.

So this mother, Megan, was saying, “We’d say, ‘I won’t let you hit,’ and redirect, but it kept happening.”

Yeah, it sounds like what’s missing there is a physical prevention of that happening, and with children this young it doesn’t take much for us to stop them. So do the smallest thing possible, have your hand there, see the hand coming out to grab and you know, block that hand, grab that hand, show your child that you can keep them safe easily and calmly because this is normal stuff. It’s not throwing you off, it’s not worrying you that your child is going in this terrible direction, this is all, all very normal typical behavior.

Those would be my alternatives to time out in those situations.

Thanks so much for listening everybody and please check out some of my other podcasts. They are on iTunes, and SoundCloud and Stitcher. Again both of my books are available at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and  Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. They’re also in paperback at Amazon and eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and apple.com.

Thanks again. We can do this.


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

  1. Good information
    Suggest use better language:
    No “yeahs’
    Children are songes. Poor language usage is a deterent

  2. Hi Janet,

    I’ve got a six month old and I’m so glad I came across your material. I’ve been sharing these posts with my parents as they may look after my little one a couple of days per week when I go back to work. Their response is along the lines of “sure you don’t punish a toddler but you have to punish an older child”. It made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t know how to respond as I’m a new mum and focussing on baby years. Can you help me with a response to this?


  3. Hi Janet,
    Thank you for this piece. It might be obvious but I’m just wondering how I might approach this with more than one child. There are occasional times when my youngest two (3 and 5) get so wound up I end up separating them in their rooms. I never like this approach, I spend my time going between them trying to help them settle, but if they stay together, they don’t seem to be able to settle at all. I’m truly in that place of not wanting them to be in time out, but not sure how to help them safely when it’s both struggling at the same time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations