We Asked Two Child Therapists If Time-Outs Actually Work and…It’s Complicated

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You’re mid playdate when your kid bops another kid on the head with T-Rex and all hell breaks loose. Time for a time-out. Or maybe not.

The go-to parenting practice of sending a child to their room or otherwise isolating them so they can reflect on their actions has become increasingly controversial, with some arguing that it may be ineffective or even harmful. But on the flip side, it’s not like a gentle admonishment will curb bad behavior. And don’t children need to learn about consequences? What’s the move? We tapped two parenting experts for their take.

The Argument Against Time-Outs

“When you give a child a time-out, the message being sent is ‘If you misbehave, I need to separate you from the family, an activity or your friends,’” says Bonnie Compton, a child therapist who specializes in behavioral issues. “And while a time-out is designed to help children reflect upon their ‘misbehavior,’ it often doesn’t change behavior.”  

In fact, she argues that children don’t actually calm down during a time-out or think about what they did wrong. Instead, they tend to ruminate about how unfair their parents are. 

“My son went through a phase of hitting his younger sister all the time, which, of course, made her (and us) very upset,” one mom reveals. “We tried everything to get him to stop, including giving him time-outs. But they never worked since he would just sit there and cry. And then when the time-out was over, he would hit her again!”

Not only are time-outs unproductive but they can also be damaging, says Compton, since they contribute to feelings of isolation and abandonment. She argues that kids may perceive time-outs as a result of them being so “bad” that their parents don’t want to be around them. This, in turn, increases their anxiety and causes even more behavioral outbursts. 

Instead, she recommends giving kids a “time-in” (more on that below). 

But before you ban time-outs forever, read on for some compelling reasons you may want to keep them in your parenting playbook.

The Argument for Time-Outs

Child therapist Jennifer Kolari, author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid, argues that time-outs are vital. “Your kids are looking at you to see if you’re in charge and if you’ve got the situation under control,” she tells us. “They need limits to make them feel safe.”

Don’t think of yourself as a parent, Kolari advises. Instead, consider yourself a substitute frontal lobe.

See, the frontal lobe is responsible for emotional expression, problem solving and judgment. And here’s a fun fact: The frontal lobe is not wholly formed until age 18 or 19. “So children stay bonded to us, and we provide the substitute brain function while they’re growing up.”

As a therapist, Kolari tells us that she’s seeing increasing numbers of kids struggling with emotional regulation, i.e., what the frontal lobe is supposed to do. This, she says, is because they’re not being taught consequences. And a time-out (or a reset, as she prefers to call it) is a valuable tool for doing exactly that.

Let’s say, for example, that your kid grabs a toy out of another child’s hands. The consequence of this is that nobody is going to want to play with her. By removing her from the situation (aka giving her a time-out), she will learn that if she’s aggressive, it will disrupt her playtime and she won’t have fun anymore. And that’s when she’ll change her toy-grabbing behavior.

“If you don’t teach children consequences, then life will. And life is a much harsher teacher,” says Kolari.

What We Can All Agree On

The old way of doing time-outs is most definitely out. Remember there’s a difference between consequences and punishment, says Kolari. If you give a time-out as a punishment (“You’re going to sit there and think about what you did!”), then it’s never going to work (for all the reasons mentioned above).

Instead, try a time-in. Here’s how: A time-in means taking a break—together as a family—to regroup. “A time-in allows a kid to calm their brain and feel less emotionally overwhelmed while staying connected to their parent,” says Compton. So if your kid is in the middle of a tantrum, you would take her to a quiet place and say something like, “I know you’re upset. Let’s take some deep breaths to calm down and then we can talk about your feelings.” Time-ins can help teach kids how to self-calm and self-regulate. 

Or a reset. Kolari may be pro time-out, but hers is an updated version. She advocates for a “gentle interruption in behavior” that she refers to as a reset. In other words, don’t shout at your kid and send them to their room. Instead, remove them from the situation, without making a big deal about it, for as little as 10 to 20 seconds for kids under 4 or a couple minutes for older children. Then, when you think they’ve had enough time away from the situation, allow them to continue their play and welcome them with open arms so they can ease back in without any shame. You may have to repeat this a couple times, but your child will eventually realize that the behavior means no more fun and that’s when they’ll change it. 

Create a safe space for children. Life and feelings can be pretty overwhelming for kids. That’s why both Compton and Kolari suggest creating a calming space (like a fort in the closet or a beanbag chair in the living room) where they can go when things get to be a little too much.

Now’s not the time to lecture. You want your child to know that what they did was wrong, but trying to talk to them in the middle of a tantrum is never going to work. “Simply offer that you’re nearby to love and support them as they learn to calm themselves down,” says Compton. And Kolari agrees, saying, “Let the reset speak for itself.”

Parents can do it too. Kids learn by imitation, after all. So if you feel yourself getting worked up, take five minutes to calm down (go for a walk or try some breathing exercises) before re-engaging. Or hey, try one of these child-friendly yoga poses. After all, a little cat/cow never hurt anybody.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...