Why Time-Outs Don’t Work, and How You Can Make Them More Effective

My husband likes to tell the story of the first time he realized that getting a time-out was just an opportunity to play with his toys in the privacy of his own room. Getting punished just didn’t seem so bad after that day. I remember spending my time-outs at the top of stairwell, just outside my bedroom door, where I’m pretty sure my mom couldn’t see me (or maybe she could, and was just happy to have some time to herself). Time-outs were a very common punishment when I was growing up, but now that I’m a mother myself, I’m not sure that they’re the most effective discipline technique as we usually use them.

If you’ve been using the time-out technique with only minimal success (or none at all) consider these reasons why time-outs often don’t work, and some tips for making them more effective.

Why they don’t work…

Some kids are too young to understand time-outs. I know parents who use timeouts with their toddlers, and more often than not, they don’t seem to work. An eighteen month old who throws their toys doesn’t see the connection between her actions and the fact that she gets sent to her room for five minutes. She also doesn’t understand why her actions have upset her mother, causing her to send her daughter away.

Kids can be easily distracted. Many times time-outs become private play time for kids. I’ve taught kids who have admitted that they tried to get time-outs as often as possible because they enjoyed having the time to themselves in their rooms. Time-outs won’t be very effective if your kids actually look forward to their punishments.

Time-outs can negatively impact your relationship with your child. Young children don’t like being sent away. They often see it as a reflection of their relationship with you. Sensitive children take time-outs particularly poorly. The first (and only) time I suggested a time-out as punishment to my son, he began to cry hysterically. No kid likes to be punished, but my son’s reaction seemed particularly concerning. The fact that he kept asking me if I loved him also made me second-guess the need to punish my son with a time-out.

Using time-outs too often can cause push back. I once had a kid in youth group who told me that he averaged three time-outs a day growing up. And he wasn’t trying to wrack them up because he enjoyed the peace and quiet of the bedroom. He was just an angry kid who knew how to push his mom’s buttons. While his sister was the family’s angel, he was the rebel who was constantly getting in trouble. He took the title very seriously, even as it ruined any relationship he might have had with his mother.

How to make time-outs work…

Choose a reasonable amount of time. Many parents make time-outs too long. Small children don’t need more than a few minutes, and a great rule of thumb is to limit time-outs to the children’s age. So if your child is three, three minutes is sufficient for a time-out. Any longer, and your child is likely to lose sight of why they were sent to time-out in the first place.

Try taking a “break” instead. Time-outs don’t need to be taken alone. My son never could be sent to his room without tears and a desperate need to reaffirm my love for him. Since he suffers from pretty intense separation anxiety at times, we do our time-outs on the couch together. I hold him, and we talk (or I talk) about what went wrong.

Give your child a directed time-out. One of the best suggestions I’ve ever seen to improve the effectiveness of time-outs is the idea of giving it direction. Instead of just sending your child to his room “to think about what he’s done,” send him to his room to answer these three questions: (1) What did you do wrong? (2) Why was it wrong? and (3) How can you do better next time? When he thinks he’s answered the questions appropriately, discuss it together. If he hasn’t, give him some guidance and then send him back to his room to reconsider his answers.

Try a corner rather than a room. If your child doesn’t like being alone, there’s no reason why she has to be sent to her room. Set up a corner in your living room with a few books. Time-outs aren’t just about punishment; they also function as a reset button. When my son needs a reset, he spends a few minutes alone on the couch with his teddy bear. When he feels like he’s ready to rejoin, he’s allowed to leave the couch, as long as the bad behavior stops.

So if you’ve been trying time-outs and they just don’t seem to work for you, try one (or all) of these tips before ditching the time-out altogether. When they’re done well, time-outs are a great way to reprimand, reset, and recharge. Now we just need to figure out a way for moms to get some time-outs too.

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