As parents, we’re all quite familiar with the term “time-out.”  It’s often the first line of defense against a strong-willed, tantrum-ridden child.  But is time-out all that it’s cracked up to be?  Does it really stop a child from repeating whatever troublesome behavior is happening?

A time-out may stop the behavior in the moment, but it’s often short lived.  Many parents find themselves using time-outs so often and wonder why their kids are still misbehaving.  Let’s look at why this is as well as alternatives we can use to redirect misbehavior while maintaining our connection to our children.

Time-outs are traditionally used by parents to stop a child’s negative behavior.   More often than not, a time-out typically sounds something like, “Johnny, that’s it!  No more hitting!  You’re going to TIME-OUT!”  And off to his designated chair, corner, step or room Johnny goes, often by himself.  If he’s 2, he’ll be told to stay there for 2 minutes.  If he’s 3, he’s to stay there for 3 minutes and so on.

What we know is that when a time-out is used in this punitive way, it is largely ineffective.  Why?  For starters, it is helpful to understand brain development. Children at these young ages have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.  The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for logical thinking and reasoning.  It is also responsible for regulating emotions and controlling social behavior. This area of the brain isn’t said to be fully developed until early adulthood!

Thus, two, three and four year olds (the most popular ages for which time out is being used) do not have the logical reasoning ability to go off and “think about” what they’ve done and are not yet able to control their emotions in the way we might expect.  Even older children have difficulty processing their emotions and need our assistance. Thus, it’s unrealistic to believe that our child is up in his/her room or corner thinking, “Gosh, I really messed up that situation.  Next time I’ll be sure to use my words instead of throwing a shoe at my sister.”  Instead, the child is most likely thinking, “My mommy/daddy is so mean.  They don’t understand.  It’s not fair.  I’ll show them!” And younger children are most likely thinking, “This is scary. I’m going to run out of here and find my mommy/daddy FAST!”

Young children have BIG feelings and when upset, these big feelings can be terrifying to them. When we use time-outs in the way described above, we’re leaving our children alone at the very times they need us the most.  When our child is misbehaving, she is trying to communicate with us.  She is attempting to show and tell us how discouraged she is.  Children experience stress just as adults do.  This is not to say that we are going to ignore the misbehavior.  Rather, we are going to address the behavior at a time when everyone is calm, being both kind and firm in our approach.  It is helpful to shift from a mindset of imposing punishment or consequences to one where we search for solutions to the “problem” at hand.  Doing this with our child is how we model healthy conflict resolution. Teachable moments and learning are futile when tempers are flared.

So how can we help our children get their behavior back on track in a more positive way?  Here are 5 alternatives to time-outs:

1.) Check in with yourself to see if it’s really you that could benefit from a time-out.  If you find that your emotions are flaring up in response to your child’s negative behavior, first, assure that your child (and any other involved parties) are safe and then give yourself a time-out to engage your own prefrontal cortex.  Go into the next room.  Pause.  Breathe. Count to ten and center yourself before reacting to your child.  Role model the very behavior you would like to see from your child.

2.) Create a self-calming space with your child (best for kids 2 ½ and older). When everyone is calm, discuss the idea of a “cool down space” that your child can use when he is upset.  Just as adults need positive outlets when stressed (i.e. exercise, calling a friend, deep breathing), our children greatly benefit from this as well. Explain to your child that you would like to help him come up with his very own space that he can go to when he’s feeling angry, sad or upset.  Choose the location of the space.  Give it a name (“Joey’s cool down spot”). Stock it with calming objects – books, stuffed animals, pillows, blankets etc.  When your child gets upset, assess the situation and remind him of the special place he created.  You can offer to go with him if he’d like.  The goal is to teach your child how to self-soothe and take care of himself when upset, rather than lash out at you or someone else.  It is important to teach our children how to calm down before we can ask them to do so on their own.

3.) Distract, redirect and assess the child’s needs.  Sometimes a simple distraction or redirection is all that is needed to address the situation.  This works especially well with those 2 1/2 and younger.  Rather than engaging in a power struggle, kindly and firmly state your limit and then change the environment.  Suggest a new activity – head outside, put on music and have a dance party, run around, be playful. In addition, assess whether your child might be tired, hungry, in need of a diaper change or coming down with an illness and address those needs as soon as possible.

4.) Be kind and firm at the same time.  As Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline states, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order for children to do better, we first have to make them feel worse? Children do better when they feel better.” It is important to set limits with our children.  Being kind and firm at the same time is about respect.  We’re kind out of respect to our child and her needs and firm out of respect for ourselves and the limits we are trying to establish.  Adopting this mindset (vs. a more authoritarian one) allows us to maintain our connection with our child.  The goal is to gain cooperation; the goal is not to win.  (An example of being kind and firm if your child is hitting:  “I love you and it’s not ok to hit.  Hitting hurts.  This is how we use gentle hands.”)

5.) Use reflective listening and search for solutions.  Empathize with your child; try to understand where he is coming from; once you understand his position, invite cooperation by asking him ideas of possible solutions. For example, “You really want to play with that truck and Tommy has it right now.  It’s so hard to wait.  Do you have any ideas for how you can solve this problem?”

Research on parenting continues to demonstrate that when we focus on building a connection with our children through positive guidance and mutual respect, rather than trying to get our kids to “obey,” everyone benefits.  Parents who choose guidance over punishment have children who want to come to them (and cooperate) because their child feels a sense of belonging, significance and trust in the relationship.