Time Out

Have you ever use a time out chair for toddlers, preschoolers, or young children?  While a Time out procedure is certainly better than corporal punishment, it has several drawbacks like being emotionally disconnected.

On a positive note, a Time-out gives parents a break from unwanted behaviors. For example, it can give you the few moments you need to gain your self-control, protect other children, and maintain the flow in your living room.

All too often, a time out follows unwanted behavior.  Parents are not aware of other strategies to prevent those behaviors.  As such, here are five problems every parent ought to know about using a time out procedure:

Sitting on the time out chair for toddlers or young children tends to activate the survival centers in their brain.

How would you respond?   Let’s say your partner said, “Go to your room and think about what you just did!”  If you are like most adults, you would have a very strong reaction.  Your brain would code that statement as threatening. Next, your fight or flight reflex would get activated.  Suppose your partner said it with empathy?  “I’m sorry, but I’m not happy with your behavior.  It looks like you need to go to your room and be away from me so you can learn how to make better choices.”

Regardless of how nice your partner tells you to remove yourself and make better choices, you will have a strong, emotional reaction to it.

Children are no different.

Time-out can be a painful psychological experience.

Time out is considered by some to be nothing more than symbolic abandonment. The idea here is that a Time-out gives children a negative message.  They’re alone with their intense (and intimidating) feelings just when they need their parents the most.

Ideally, children need the opportunity to learn how to manage their emotions with a skilled coach.  A Time-out can have the opposite effect.  Nobody helps them identify what they are feeling.  Nobody helps them regulate those big and intense emotions. From this perspective, Time-out leaves children isolated, having to fend for themselves.

Time-out can be used to punish rather than teach.

It’s tempting to assume that the only way for children to learn appropriate behavior is to feel bad.  Children need some form of punishment to “teach” them a lesson.  The assumption here is that kids must experience the consequence of their actions.  Otherwise, they won’t learn about cause and effect.

Keep in mind that teaching kids a lesson they won’t forget can often activate adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones. This is likely to turn on aggressive impulses and turn off reasoning and cooperative impulses.

A time out tends to put kids in a reactive state instead of a receptive state.

As a result, kids often forget the “bad” behavior that led to their punishment because they were too aroused. If they do learn something, it’s often how to lie and avoid getting caught, which is the exact opposite of what parents want.

Punishment disconnects us from our kids.  It reduces our influence.  Keep in mind that a Time-out can do the same. For example, kids who don’t feel emotionally safe and secure with their parents are much less likely to learn something positive. Instead, they tend to focus on surviving Mom and Dad’s punishment.  They try to avoid the sting of emotional isolation. In both cases, they tend to learn that they are alone, just when they need parents the most!

Thankfully, there are some other options.

Do you want to help children learn their lesson without the risk of feeling isolated?  Do you want to help them learn how to work through difficult emotions with the help of others?  If so, then consider using a Time-in rather than a Time-out.

With the Time in technique, you remove children from the situation.  Next, you sit with them.  Then you help them process the feelings that drove the unwanted behavior. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you give up the idea of setting limits.  No running into the street, no hitting, no jumping on the couch, no roughing up the family pet are still off limits.

However, when those limits are crossed, a Time-in can help kids talk through disturbing emotions. It’s a way to focus less on the external problem (the unwanted behavior) and focusing more on the internal problem (the disturbing emotions that drove the behavior).

A Point to Ponder

Employing a Time-in with a child carries a powerful, unspoken message.  It says that you’re on his team; he matters to you; he gets access to you.  Even more, it says, ” I don’t like your unwanted behavior, and I disagree with it.  But I am still here for you.  You’re very important to me no matter how obnoxious, disrespectful, and aggressive you are acting!” It also says, “I accept you in spite of your limitations.”

Acceptance and understanding is something every child needs, even when they misbehave.



  1. Waynna

    Such great insight.

    • Steve Cuffari

      Thanks for noticing.


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Steve Cuffari

Author: Steve Cuffari For many, Steve Cuffari is the mentor that parents call on to make their parenting style warmer, easier and more affective. He is the founder of inTouch Parenting, a company devoted to helping today's parents calm the chaos, raise emotionally intelligent kids, and nurture families that thrive.         read more about Steve Cuffari here...

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