When Time Outs Don't Work

If you find yourself hitting a dead end with time outs, it may be time to try something new. Read more about this time out alternative.

By Momentous Institute | Jul 27, 2021
Time Outs

If you’re like many parents, you may be realizing that the traditional “time out” strategy is just not working. Maybe you send your kid to time out, and he screams the whole time. Or maybe he goes into his room, closes the door, and falls asleep. Maybe he sits there with his arms crossed the whole time thinking about how terrible his parents are. In any case, most kids don’t actually go to time out and “think about what they’ve done” and come back out with remorse and clarity. Time out rarely works like that.

In fact, time out can often have the opposite effect than intended. Kids often go to time out without a clear understanding of the reason. Sometimes they feel shame or embarrassment about the incident, sometimes they feel resentful or misunderstood.

If you find yourself hitting a dead end with time outs, it may be time to try something new. Enter: the time in.

Consider this. A dedicated calm, safe space in the home where your child can go to regulate after an incident. Maybe it’s a bed, a nook in the corner of their room, or a quiet place outdoors. An incident occurs, let’s say a child gets caught sneaking a cookie, and rather than sending them off to their room, you both go together to this dedicated place. You can say something like, “I see that you took a cookie. I know you love cookies, but you know that you cannot have a cookie without asking. It seems like you have chosen to have some time in to think about what has happened.” If the child is upset and crying, you calmly sit with them and rub their back. You model deep, intentional breathing. Slowly, their breathing begins to match yours. If the child is angry and defensive, you hand them an item that you know comforts them, a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket. They squeeze the stuffed animal, or lay under the blanket with you right next to them, and slowly, gradually, they begin to calm down. Sometimes this takes just a minute, other times it takes a lot longer.

Some kids may want to be alone to calm down, and that is okay. This is not time out, where they’re being sent there as a punishment. This is time in, a place they can pay attention to their own needs in order to self-regulate. If they calm down better alone, they can spend a few minutes alone. If they calm down better with an adult rubbing their back or helping them take deep breaths, they can calm down together. (Quick tip: an appropriate amount of time alone should match their age – a five year old can manage maybe about five minutes alone, a two year old, just two minutes. It’s not reasonable for really any age child to spend 30 minutes in time out or alone in time in.)

Once the child has managed to calm down – either alone or with an adult co-regulating, then (and only then) can they handle a discipline conversation. This is when it’s appropriate to start asking what happened, how the child is feeling, and explaining any rules or expectations that have been broken. These conversations should also be very quick and brief – explain the incident, validate their feelings, then move on.

See the difference? In a time out, the child gets sent off (usually by an adult who seems angry or upset), the child is then upset, and then spends the whole time stewing in a big emotion. With time in, the child understands the incident, goes to a safe and comfortable spot, manages their own reaction and response, knows that the adult supports them and loves them through this challenge, and learns how to self-regulate and make a different decision the next time. We won’t pretend it’s fool proof – nothing about discipline with children is – but a time in can be a valuable tool when you find that time outs aren’t doing the trick.