Using 'time-out' positively

Using time-out has become a regular disciplinary method that most parents use, but is it really effective?

How many times have you put your child in time-out for misbehaving only to have him directly do the same thing you put him in time-out for?

Who hasn’t struggled with making a toddler stay in time-out? You keep putting him back, but he keeps leaving the time-out space and pretty soon it’s turned into a game for him and frustration for you.

Why time-out doesn’t work

There’s actually a very good reason why time-out doesn’t work. Young children under five find it extremely difficult to control and regulate their feelings. So when they are asked to go to time-out and calm down, they simply can’t do it.

Whatever feeling your child is going through at that moment just seems too much to handle for him. He needs you to help him; he simply can’t do it alone.

Another reason is that children need immediate consequences to help them learn. Prolonging punishment isn’t really going to help you emphasise your point.

When a child is asked to go in his room and "think about what he’s done" that doesn’t give him any idea as to what he did wrong or what he could have done instead. Young children are still learning and exploring, everything is new to them.

What might come naturally to you may be a skill your child needs to be introduced to. This doesn’t mean you should be permissive with your child and just let him do whatever he wants. Time-out can be an effective tool when used positively.

How to best use time-out

Remove your child from the situation to a calm spot if he is misbehaving or is having a meltdown. Remind him of house rules like "no-hitting," depending on the situation.

Use time-out as a calming space and not punishment. Don’t leave your child alone in time-out and don’t associate it with something negative.

Instead, provide your child with support and comfort to help him recognise his feelings, listen to why he misbehaved, discuss with him why his behaviour was inappropriate and explain the kind of behaviour you expect from him.

With repetition, time-out can become a place for your child to regulate his feelings. Instead of threatening to send him to time-out, you can enable him to use time-out to calm himself. If you start seeing signs that your child is feeling frustrated and agitated, you can ask him if he needs some time-out.

As your child grows older and learns to regulate his emotions on his own, he can use time-out by himself.

What to watch out for

Don’t overuse time-out. Like anything else, don’t resort to time-out every time your child misbehaves. Find out why your child is misbehaving or feeling frustrated and choose an appropriate solution for that specific situation.

Distinguish between your child’s behaviour and your child. Avoid using words like "stop being naughty." Labelling your child tells him what to think of himself, not his behaviour.

Instead, explain which behaviour was wrong: e.g. "stop jumping on the sofa." You want to send a message about your child’s behaviour, not himself, to help him find an alternative and maintain his self-confidence.

Jailan Heidar


Jailan Heidar

Jailan Heidar provides support for English speaking parents of young children in the Netherlands. She is a Parent and Teacher Educator with a specialized interest in child behavior and positive...

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