The Trouble With Timeouts & What To Do Instead
If you’ve used timeouts as a discipline plan, you’re in good company. If you’d like to learn more alternatives to timeouts, you’re in the right place.
Many of us are told to use timeouts so that children can learn appropriate behavior (“you need to learn to behave yourself.”), and for children to develop self-regulation skills (“you need to learn how to calm down.”).
And believe me when I say that I still contemplate a timeout for my children when I’m feeling at my wits end. We all have days like that, ya know? You’re absolutely correct if you’re thinking it’s better than violent punishments like spanking, or flying into a rage.
In which case, if you are feeling like you’re at a breaking point, a timeout might be very helpful for everyone (I’ve been known to give myself a timeout if I feel some anger a-brewin’).
Yet, there are some issues about timeouts that are important for us to think about before moving forward.
I know that many of us are on the same page in wanting a healthy and unconditionally loving relationship with our children.
We also want our children to learn from their mistakes, and develop healthy ways to calm themselves down.
We’re pretty amazing like that.
It might be helpful to consider what message a child receives when given a timeout.
Because when we isolate our child for any reason, the message might be, “Mom can’t handle me like this,” or “Dad only wants to be around me when I’m happy.”
Ouch. That’s not our intention. You and I both know that.
Yet essentially, a timeout is a withdraw from relationship. It’s a conditional way of disciplining. It’s also a threat.
We may think that if we threaten solitude and withdraw our affection, our children will comply with us. And yes, they might comply. But then we’ve taught our child that our relationship is a conditional one. That we can only be in relationship with one another when everyone is happy and reasonable.
Our children learn that we don’t want them around us when they experience intense feelings.
Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson researched that children rarely feel remorse after a one-sized fits all timeout. Instead, “automatically isolating them deprives them of a chance to practice being active, empathetic decision makers who are empowered to figure things out.”
Maybe we’ve even noticed that a timeout causes our children to look humiliated and angry, or resentful of punishments. Opening ourselves to the science behind behavioral challenges or learning a bit more about how we can help our children develop a healthy brain can pave the way for us.
Dr. Gabor Maté, who specializes in child development says in an interview, “anything we do that undermines the relationship with the child, will actually undermine the child’s development. Because it makes the child insecure, in fight or flight mode, in which mode they don’t learn anything. They are just defending.”
So what’s an alternative to a timeout?
Maté goes on to say that the, “essential template for the emotional development of the child, as well as for the brain’s healthy physiological development is a nurturing relationship with mutually responsive adults.”
In other words, we need to find ways to connect and respond to our children in meaningful ways. Not just when our children are happy and relaxed, but when they are sharing hard feelings and disagreeing with us.
You’ll find your own special way of doing this because you and your child have your own unique relationship. If you listened to my first Weave In Wonder podcast, I shared that it’s not about following a certain script, rather, connecting from a place of authenticity and awareness, and allowing that to attune us to our children’s experiences.
Below are a few alternatives to timeouts. I Would love to hear which are speaking to you!
1) We can connect while also setting limits.
When our child is driving us bananas in any way, take a quick moment to observe before responding with a punishment. Are they tired, hungry, or overstimulated? Could their behavior be a response to something more; a new sibling, a new school, or a change?
If we’re not sure, we can still view our child’s difficult behavior as a call for extra help and connection. This means shifting our view that punishments are constructive.
To do this, we set limits and guide our children our children in a calm and confident way. At the bottom I shared a helpful article on setting limits without bribes or threats.
2) We can validate feelings.
We all need someone who understands, ya know? When our child is struggling, we can attune ourselves to their point of view and validate their feelings. We do it as best we can, knowing we might not get it right every time. But the point is, we take a step back from our own point of view, which tends to hold some judgement and bias. They can feel that.
Then we embody the message: I see what you mean. I get you. I’m on your side.
This might look like, “You didn’t win the game this time. You look frustrated! Losing can feel hard. I get that. I’m here...” or “wow, you sound really angry at your brother. I understand that. Let’s find another way to express it…I’m here…”
Then we let our child’s feelings be. It’s theirs, not ours. We can see expressing hard feelings as healthy, cause there is a ton of research that indicates this. This doesn’t mean ignore the feelings. We are present. Even an empathetic look or nod can connect us all better.
3) We can ask questions.
Once we’ve all cooled off a bit, we can take the time to ask questions and resist lecturing. To be real - I still lecture. It’s something I’m actively working on. But I bet you noticed that this is rarely effective.
Children don’t become authentically empathetic, reasonable problem solvers from lectures and punishments. They become this way from real experiences and opportunities to practice.
So we can ask in our own special way,
“Did you notice Sally’s red face and tears? Can you imagine what she’s feeling?”
“What can you do to make this right?"
“This isn’t working. Can we come up with a new plan together?”
Allow some time for thoughtful contemplation. Most importantly, be open to a solution that isn’t what we thought of.
4) We can focus on natural consequences.
When we discover how to use natural consequences in a way that doesn’t become manipulative, it can feel very validating. Our children can learn an important lesson right before our eyes. It can also pave a smoother path the next time we’re in a similar situation, which is a beautiful thing. <3
But truly, we must work at modeling fairness and grace, and ensuring that we explain the natural consequence in an honest and loving way.
A few examples that might help:
Our child makes a mess and then spends some time cleaning up (parents can help too, which doesn’t diminish from the lesson learned).
Our child resists leaving the park and runs away from us, which means there is less time to go for a bike ride later.
Our child resists brushing teeth before bedtime, which means their is less time to read a favorite book.
Our child continues throwing food even after gently stopping them, which means food is put away.
Which alternatives to timeouts are speaking to you?
WE DON’T HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT EVERY TIME. I’M GROWING AND LEARNING just like you. WE TRY OUR BEST IN EACH MOMENT. THEN THE NEXT ONE. AND THE NEXT ONE.
If you would like more support on this, or anything else you’re struggling with, I’m here to help. :)
With love and respect,
Get to know me and our community:
My journey and my RIE training
Parent coaching with Jesse:
My approach is practical and positive, and I share realistic strategies that help to lovingly shift challenges, backed by latest research. I see people virtually, or in person in the Bay Area. Schedule a session here.
Join our playgroup:
Starting again in September! Read all the deets here. We'd love to have you.
In the shop: