True or false: time-outs are a helpful tool to teach children good behavior and increase household peace.
We bet we know your answer. You think the answer is true.
After all, time outs are ubiquitous in parenting. As common as playgrounds, playdates and snuggles.
But here’s the surprising truth about time-outs: they don’t work.
In fact, not only are they completely ineffective, they actually make things WORSE.
They do NOT encourage your child to focus and cooperate, and they harm your child’s emotional development.
They cause your child to get angrier, develop destructive self-beliefs, and refuse to cooperate with you in the future.
In fact, if you’ve been putting your child in “time out” but have been frustrated by their continued lack of discipline and acting out, this may just be the most important article you’ll read as a parent.
Imagine your child is having a meltdown.
Maybe you’ve asked him three times to come eat dinner and he’s purposely ignoring you.
She’s throwing legos at her younger brother and when you tell her to stop she starts throwing them at YOU.
He’s whining about wanting a cookie before dinner, and when you say no again, he pulls up a chair to retrieve one from the plate on the counter.
These are the situations that can drive you nuts as a parent.
You want your child to cooperate and listen, but you don’t want to yell. You definitely don’t want to get aggressive or spank them. You want to de-escalate the situation and get their full attention.
So reach into your parenting toolbox and do what many parents do: You put them in a time-out. Maybe you tell them to sit in a chair in the corner, or send them to their room.
You may then say, “You sit here and think about what you’ve done.”
“Don’t come out until you can apologize.”
You believe that the time-out will make your child:
But actually, it does just the opposite.
And that’s why you keep having to put your child in a time out because they misbehave. Over and over for longer and longer!
If a child doesn’t reflect on their behavior or feel motivated to do better, what does a child think and feel when they’re put in a time out?
“When children are sent to punitive time-out, they are likely to be thinking, ’I won’t get caught next time. I’ll get even. Or, worst of all, I’m bad.’" says Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of many Positive Discipline books, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a featured expert in the Flourish program, Parenting Traps.
They may be thinking about how unfair your “rules” are, and how wrong they think YOU are.
She never lets me play videos. All my friends get to as much as they want but I always have to go do something else.
They’re plotting revenge, thinking of how they’ll “get back at” their sibling for taking their legos in the first place.
I’ll show him. I’ll stomp on his toy truck later when he’s not looking!
They feel resentful and angry. Or rebellious—not wanting anything to do with what you’re telling them to do and instead telling themselves they’ll do the opposite.
I hate homework! I’m not even going to try to get a good grade on it. Who cares?
“Negative time out is based on the silly thought that in order to get children to do better, first we have to make them feel worse,” says Jane.
And it just doesn’t work.
And then there’s the issue of using time outs on children who are very young and particularly sensitive to the harmful messages of a time out.
They are at the stage of development when they’re learning self-regulation and self-control through watching and imitating their parents. If they are put in a time out, they don’t learn to self-regulate, they just feel shame and rejection.
Dr. Jane Nelsen explains it this way…
According to Jane, children under the age of about 2-½ should not be sent into time out unless you go with them and unless it’s for the purposes of calming down and redirecting their attention. This is because young children don’t yet have the ability to reason and they don’t process a time out the way an older child might. Sending them into a punitive time out sends the wrong message—that they are bad.
However, very young children aren’t bad or misbehaving, they’re usually tired or frustrated because they lack the language or skills to get their needs met.
If your toddler is having a meltdown, it’s a good idea to offer to hug them or snuggle with them under their favorite blanket, or redirect them by going to a quiet place in the home to read them a favorite book.
Giving kids a choice to go to a quiet place to get calm and feel better is what she calls a positive time-out.
It’s a time out that a child names, describes and chooses when they are feeling upset.
They may call it “chill-out” time and it can be a place where they have their favorite stuffed animal and a comfy place to sit or lay down and rest until they feel better. Not only is this more empowering to kids, it’s much more respectful to them.
It still helps them reset and calm down, but they’ve CHOSEN to take that step, instead of being blamed and shamed for some natural acting out that is a part of growing up.
“It is respectful because children are involved in the process… instead of being victims of the process.”
Punishing children with time-outs doesn’t motivate them to think through the consequences of their behavior next time. It only leads them to feeling more angry, resentful, rebellious and unworthy. It may lead to negative beliefs, such as “I’m bad” or “I can’t do anything right”. It can prompt them to unconsciously act out negative beliefs about themselves.
They’ll believe they’re bad, so they’ll act bad. They’ll believe they can’t do anything right, so they won’t even try.
And that’s a big reason why you keep having to put them in longer and more restrictive time outs, which leads them to feeling even more angry and resentful, or even more ashamed.
Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they feel like victims.
They become adults who believe they’re victims. Who lack self-control. Who are entitled or narcissistic.
Which is why time outs are a mistake and likely creating the opposite of the kind of future you envision for your kids.
That doesn’t mean you have to be permissive or ignore your child’s troublesome behavior.
There’s a way to parent that gets you the results you want now (children who know how to solve problems and consider the consequences of their actions)…
While ALSO showing you how to create the structure that makes it likely your kids grow up to be happy, confident, thriving adults.
You want to do what’s best for your kids.
But what is best? Sometimes as parents we “wing it” based on how we were raised, or do what we assume should work, but are frustrated when it doesn’t work. We think it’s our kids who are stubborn and unruly. Or we think we are inconsistent. Neither are necessarily true.
We simply don’t know what we don’t know.
That’s why we decided to turn to some of the world’s top experts and get their insights and advice on how to avoid the most common mistakes with parenting, and what to do instead.
When you subscribe to our free expert advice newsletter, you’ll get information-rich articles delivered to your inbox, with tons of actionable tips and specific advice to help you make positive changes in your parenting approach. These are articles by psychotherapists, authors, speakers and experts with decades of real-world experience working with families.
You’ll also learn:
As parents, we’re going to make mistakes. And that’s okay—mistakes are part of life. They’re an opportunity to learn and do better, for ourselves AND our kids.
That’s why we at Flourish want to give you the tools you need to make your job as a parent much easier, more joyful, and more connected.