10 Reasons why I’m not working with Time-Outs

Boundaries are a healthy thing; we all have them. But how do you make them known to children? How do you set limits? It turns out that it’s not always effective to kindly keep explaining things to your child and your child will just keep on doing what it was doing. You may reach a point of  exhaustion. Or perhaps you feel like a police officer when once again you hear yourself speaking in that stern tone of voice towards your child. Especially when your message doesn’t seem to hit home. Or perhaps, when you give in, you’re feeling like you do not have a voice nor personal space. And maybe you’re so tired of it all, that you reach for a timeout and put your child on a chair down the hall or in a corner.

Maybe you feel sad afterwards. Feeling sorry that you’ve done that, as you so wanted to parent differently. Maybe you are happy with the use of time-outs, because you see that peace seems to be restored afterwards. Whatever your opinion, it’s not that surprising that so many of us tend to use the timeout technique for challenges with our children.Perhaps even when we would like it to be different! Not only are we often told that a timeout is a good, reliable solution, but almost all of us are brought up with it.If we did not experience it at home, then we saw it at our friends places or it happened at school. Few of us have learned other ways of dealing with challenges with children, so it’s not that strange that this is the strategy we tend to grasp for when the going gets tough.

What is a timeout anyway?

Timeout is a method to correct children in their behaviour, for example when they’re “not listening” or “do something you don’t want them to do.” With time-out, a child is separated from the situation; put alone in a corner, set alone on a chair or sent alone into a room. What happens is that a child becomes separated from the situation, from other children and from the parent. The intention is that the time-out will teach the child to stop with certain behaviours and help him “cool down”. It is a quite popular technique. We can even see it on TV in shows like the Nanny. According to a Dutch website, Online Pedagogue, this technique is suitable for reducing all kinds of unwanted behaviour;

“Especially with disobedient and rebellious behaviour, a timeout can be useful. (..) A time-out is useful, for example, to explain to a child that it is not desirable to complain and to cry “crocodile tears” when you don’t get candy. (..) Only when the child understands exactly why it gets a time-out, is this method able to change his or her behaviour. Therefore, it is also important to be consistent. (..) Your attitude should convey “you will get nowhere with that behaviour. “(..) At any given time, the child will almost hear your voice in his head when he’s on the verge of doing something bad. And when a child can then control his own behaviour before wrongdoing has been done, then a child has learned something very valuable. This way, a child learns (among other things) to take over the values ​​of his parents. (..) In the meanwhile, ignore all the protest and noise of the child. In the beginning it can sometimes be necessary to repeat this process many times, but over time, the child will learn that running away is not leading to anything. (..) However, over time it will become increasingly easier to apply this technique. (..) It is certainly important that you’re the one that determines whether the timeout has lasted long enough. 

Does a time-out really work like that in real life?

It certainly sounds attractive; it would appears easier to apply when we are seeking to modify our child’s behaviour.It also appears that the child learns something valuable, learns to monitor their own behaviour, hears my voice in his head .. But do children really learn this way to change their behaviour? Is a timeout really that useful? Do timeouts really do what is promised to us in books and blogs? Or does it get us only further into trouble?

Do you wonder about these questions too? Or have you tried timeouts only to find they did not “work” as promised? Does the behaviour keep coming back? Or are you just a little curious?  In this blog/article i have shared the reasons why I have chosen not to advise timeouts to parents and why I prefer other strategies.  Of course if you are satisfied with the use of time-outs and it works fine for you, feel free to skip this article!

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A time-out works only when we are there

Online Pedagogue explains that the result of time-outs is that our child will start to hear our voice in her head and that when we are not there, they will remember what we told them. Unfortunately, one of the problems with timeouts, is that once we are out of sight, the unwanted behaviour will return. “Look, mama’s not looking!” So we will have to be in their face and remember our child again and again about the threat of timeout, whenever they seem to forget. Like a police officer. Threat gone, behaviour gone. Quite exhausting! Also, Online Pedagogue wrote that it will get easier and easier the more you apply this technique. Suppose we apply this technique with a teenager who does not even fit on a little time-out chair and who has more freedom to do as she wants? What to do then? It almost leaves no other option than to resort to using heavier strategies and more power and control by that time.


A time-out increases feelings of resentment and shame

A time-out is meant for children to cool down and to unlearn behaviour, but it may actually increase feelings of anger, shame or resentment. Nobody likes to be excluded from the party. When a child has quite a temper tantrum or feels angry, or we think that the tears are “not real”; the time-out model advises us not to help our child. It instead advises to ignore the behaviour, because attention would encourage it. Researcher Eisenberg and colleagues show that brain-scans of someone experiencing relational pain like the pain caused by rejection,  looks very similar to the brain-scans of someone experiencing  physical pain.

Children must then, all alone, figure it out themselves what to do with their emotions. But because the thinking part of the brain is not yet as developed as an adult mind, children come to all kinds of children’s conclusions and solutions in order to be able to deal with those feelings; like swallowing feelings, thoughts of revenge or distracting themselves from what they are feeling by play and dissociation (pretending nothing is wrong).


A time-out only fixes the symptom

A time-out is not intended to guide children’s feelings, only to stop them and to correct visible behaviour. So whether a time-out is meant to calm down a child that has a tantrum or to stop certain ‘mis’behaviour, time-out only focuses on the result, not on HOW to get there. So the feelings of frustration, anger, shame, sadness, loneliness and resentment are therefore not resolved, but only hidden from our parental sight. 

The problem is that the underlying feelings often pop up later again.These might be expressed in restless sleeping, an act of revenge towards a younger child,  a concentration problem at school, hyperactivity or aggression towards another child, etc. It is then advised to give another timeout for the resultant behaviour that has manifested from a previous ‘timed out’ emotion.In my opinion that sets us up for a vicious circle. Basically a time-out helps us from bad to worse!

So by isolating our child from us with time-out, each time we do this, we miss a chance to deal with the problem at the root cause. Missing the opportunity to gently guide our child on how we as humans deal with each other, how they can deal with their feelings and how they can deal with their behaviour. 


A time-out promotes lying

We are told that children learn something valuable by the use of time-outs. Unfortunately what we aren’t told is that because of a time-out a child fails to become self-motivated.  Instead the child behaves because it wants to avoid a time-out. So once we are out of sight, or when the risk of being caught seems zero, the motivation to modify their “mis” behaviour is gone. So children don’t learn something valuable, as was promised to us, instead, on the contrary they learn to make choices based on the “probability of detection”. They may also learn that lying is a good option to avoid a time-out. Not only  is this undesirable, it makes parenthood again unnecessarily more difficult.


a timeout breaks trust

Over the years, we want our children to build their trust in us, that they feel they can come to us when they are in trouble or struggling with something. When a child regularly experiences that she gets a time-out when we disagree with her behaviour, in future they will think 3 times before they come to us with a problem that we might judge them for. Yet, we are promised that it is important that timeouts are applied consistently to be effective. This advice doesn’t help us if we want to build an environment in which our children dare to ask for help and feel that they can deeply trust us.

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we lose our authority

The natural bond we have as parents with a child, is what makes that child want to follow us by nature, because they feel connected to us. A timeout briefly compromises that bond; a child is isolated and for a while gets no love and attention. Moreover, we are advised to apply this technique regularly, or in other words: to apply this “break-up” of the connection regularly. Again and again these little break ups are like waves of the ocean that erode a strong stone. This is not only sad, but also practically unhandy; when a child feels less connected with us, deep inside it will feel less motivated to cooperate with us or take our views and opinions into consideration. It promised to us that timeouts will teach children to adopt our values, but in practice, in effect we diminish the chance of that, because timeouts simply undermine our natural authority. 

Neurologist Gordon Neufeld says about this:


a timeout makes obedient

We are told that time-out is very effective and children become obedient and docile, reluctant to “misbehave”. At first glance that might sound desirable, but the question is: do we really want that to happen submissively? An obedient child has learned to follow it’s parents submission, but this behavioural development could create subordination to others; teachers, peers, bosses, gurus, singers and politicians. The child learns to relate in this way to others. In turn “time-out” may possibly influence our future societies’ trends, political directions and societal norms. So the big question is; do we want this? Or do we really want something else; a self-thinking child who is not blindly obedient but is willing to cooperate?


a time-out sets the wrong example

We all want to lead our kids by example and we do not want to give the example of “When you’re bigger and stronger, you may decide about the freedom of another and exclude that person to isolation when they do not behave in a manner which you see as desirable.” Unfortunately, this is the very basis of time-out. It also sets an example to children that you can do this to others who are smaller and “weaker” than you, like other children..


a timeout has undesirable side-effects

Time-outs are based on the idea that a child would rather avoid getting a timeout, so that when we give time-outs, the child would stop certain behaviour. However, what we aren’t told is that a child might not only stop the behaviour, but that there is also a chance that he will stop other behaviours that we would like to see. For example, when a child wants to explore an alluring but fragile vase and gets a time-out for his explorations. He learns not only that he is not allowed to play with “the fragile vase”, but he might also learn that exploring is not ok, making him more cautious to explore the world and learn.


consistency is impossible

Timeouts work especially “well” if you are consistent. The reason for this is that in a laboratory situation, it was shown that rats who were not consistently punished, got confused and were not easily trained. In application to this animal study a ‘time-out’ was not much of use anymore. Therefore it is important to be consistent when giving time-outs. Not only this is a big challenge for parents, it is practically impossible … Life is much more complicated and fluctuating than a controlled laboratory situation. Every moment in life is unique. Furthermore, people are way more complex in their cerebral functions than rats and they have a broader set of reasons for their behaviour than rats do. So why are we recommended to use this one-size-fits-all solution?

In short ..

Some people tell us that if we want to set limits, we have to use timeouts. We read, hear and see (on TV) only the advantages of timeouts, but actually timeouts give us a whole bunch of new problems that we must grapple with. We’ll need more timeouts and nothing is really resolved. In whole, parenting becomes an unnecessary drag; playing policeman to our child over and over.

But is it possible without?

Parenting without timeouts (and without reward) is possible, but taking another approach does not always appear to be easy, especially since we became often so acquainted with punishments (and rewards) from a young age. So in the heat of the moment when you are at a loss, it may be that in despair you use a  timeout. Or maybe you’re not desperate, but you are deeply convinced of the effectiveness of timeouts, because you think otherwise there’s no limits and your children won’t learn anything. Parents are often alone in their parenting and have their hands full with their children plus 1000 other things on their shoulders. It sometimes seems there’s no other option than giving a timeout.

That is precisely why I find it so important to offer support and alternative tools; to provide the insights and tools that can actually create a difference. There are many other ways to set boundaries and create cooperation. To show that parenthood without timeouts is possible and that certainly it doesn’t mean that there’s no limits with out them. To support parents to actually live without time-outs, even when you as a parent are ‘run off your feet’ and  tired (especially then!). Other ways can even be easier than a timeout!

And parenting without time-outs means that we set an example how to deal with conflicts; the way we deal with conflicts with our children, teaches them a lot about how to deal with conflict themselves. After all, children learn most from how we behave as parents and caretakers. Most importantly perhaps is that without time-outs, parenting becomes a lot more fun. To stop being a police officer and find more connection, joy and fulfilment. Who would not want that?

So what can you do?

So is the other option to reward your children all day, with sweets, keeping them silent and lots of praise? I also am not much of a fan of that. And fortunately there are plenty of other ways! Click here or see the video below for one good tip! A short and funny video of Mr. T. from the A-Team!

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About the author:

Hi! My name is Chris Muller, MSc, BTA. I am a psychologist, counselor in Transactional Analysis, Aware Parenting instructor (level 2) regional coordinator the Netherlands and mother. For 10 years I provide support to parents through training, the Aware Parenting Education and 1-on-1 guidance. With a lot of love I help you to treat children AND yourself with love and respect. It is my passion that you experience more joy and more connection with your child AND with yourself! X

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