timeout girl

Why I Don’t Believe in Timeouts

The holiday season is here, which means lots of great parties, activities and more! But, for many of us – our children included – it can (at times) be overwhelming and stressful. Kids in general when overbooked or overstimulated either act out/misbehave, completely shut down, or come unglued. With holiday parties galore, Santa sightings and lots and lots of sweets, holidays are the perfect storm for such meltdowns. Instead of REACTING to their misbehavior, I’m encouraging you to RESPOND.

As adults, when we “misbehave” – that is snapping at our loved ones, fighting with our families, etc. – we generally chalk it up to being tired or stressed out. And what do we do when we get tired or stressed out? We make sure we get to bed early, maybe go for a walk, get a massage or take a yoga class; we take care of ourselves. So why should it be any different for our kiddos? When they are misbehaving, try and look at the underlying causes – maybe they are tired, have been to one too many holiday parties, aren’t getting the proper nutrition and are just too far off from their normal routine. Instead of giving them timeouts (and other ineffective punishments), use it as a time to teach them how to take care of themselves.


{Image via here}

Traditionally, a timeout is given when mom or dad is just fed up, so they yell at the child to take a timeout and maybe even set a timer depending on their age (which is just silly – if you are 35 and snap at your husband, do you have to go sit in a corner for 35 minutes??). The child generally is too young to understand and really reflect on “what they did wrong” or they are old enough to just spend the time being angry at you for being “so unfair.” Generally, the timeout is followed by some lengthy lecture about their behavior which is usually greeted with the child avoiding eye contact, refusing to say sorry, etc. Bottom line – timeouts are given from a place of frustration and anger, are outdated and ineffective, and will only damage your relationship with your child.

A better solution is to use the time to teach your child how to take care of themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Wouldn’t that be a great life lesson, for your children to recognize when they need some time and space to themselves instead of screaming and misbehaving?

In my Redirecting Children’s Behavior parenting class, we talk about a self-calming time instead of timeouts. Self-calming time can mean a number of different things, and can be tailored to work for your family. Self-calming time, or a break, or whatever vocabulary feels most comfortable with your family philosophy, is an opportunity for your child to find their own space and do an activity that gets them to refocus and calm down. It is never used as a threat like a timeout, but rather an opportunity for your child to regroup. Here are some basics:

  • With your child, create a self-calming bag filled with toys, lovies or quiet activities that they can pick out. You can order some great bags off of Etsy like the ones below, or you can make your own and have your children pick out the fabric, or put stickers on them. Then let them pick out their favorite activities, like coloring or some quiet books. Make sure to involve them in the process, they will more likely be excited and intrigued by the idea if they have a say in it.


{Images via Etsy and Etsy}

  • Give them a choice in the self-calming activity. You know your child best, and maybe they get recharged just by taking a walk, or reconnecting with nature. I highly recommend them walking barefoot in the grass or the sand. The grounding nature of this simple activity combined with some fresh air does wonders for one’s mood.


{Image via Care2.com}

  • Pick out a self-calming space ahead of time. With your child, at the beginning of the day, walk around the house and find or create a self-calming space. In general, most younger children benefit from smaller spaces. A nook in between a bookshelf and a bed, a space under the stairs, or even a mattress on the floor with lots of blankets and pillows. Maybe a spot outside on a big blanket next to a tree is the right space for them. I love the idea of a teepee (like this one) for them to crawl into and have some quiet time.


 {Image via Etsy}

  • Do not set a time limit. Leave it up to your children to determine when they are calm and ready to rejoin you. This will help them develop self-awareness. If they come back and still seem agitated let them know that it doesn’t feel like they are completely calm and with no other words gently guide them back to their space.

  • If they still aren’t calm, take a break yourself! Sometimes children can be so overtired that they are just beyond the ability to stop and calm down. If this is the case, do not get into a power struggle with them, instead you can tell them that you need a break, and model what that looks like. Explain to them in very few words that you are feeling overwhelmed and need some quiet, alone time. Obviously, make sure they are in a safe place, or pick a place where you can still keep an eye on them. Read a magazine, get a drink of water, put on some soft classical music, or go outside and do some stretches and take deep breaths.

  • Only after they are calm and at a much later time, explain to them what you didn’t like about their behavior. Explain that you understand what it is like to feel overwhelmed and frustrated, but it is not OK to hit, scream, etc. Let them know that you will help remind them to take some self-calming time next time they seem upset or frustrated. Never try and teach a lesson when your child is melting down. When you are angry and irritated with your spouse/friend/boss, do you think you would be most responsive to their advice at that time???

  • For younger ones, introduce the concept by beginning with water breaks.  I’ve introduced the concept as young as 18 months. It removes them from the situation, gets them a cool glass of water which has been known to help physically calm the body, and refocuses them.

Try and remember that your children are human and will get overwhelmed and react in less than ideal ways. It is a great opportunity to teach them about taking care of themselves and how to respond in a more appropriate manner. It might also mean you have to say no to a few holiday parties to keep them from getting too overwhelmed, but you should feel good about putting you and your family’s needs first. I hope you say no to the traditional timeout and try introducing some self-calming time in your house. And remember, if this is a new concept in your household it will probably take a few tries for the idea to stick. Don’t give up and keep trying. It will only do good for your whole family in the long run.


One thought on “Why I Don’t Believe in Timeouts

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