A "Time-Out" on Time-Outs

Excerpted from The Go-To Mom's Parents' Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Kimberly Blaine

Why Time-Out is Not Effective

tantrumAs parents, we've all been there. When the kicking, screaming, and other tantrum-y behaviors start, the easy fix is often a threat (or an order) to go to time-out. And chances are, you picked up this habit from your own parents. But according to parenting expert and author Kimberley Clayton Blaine, too many time-outs may be ineffective at best -- young children simply don't understand the concept -- and downright harmful at worst.

That's right. Kids subjected to repeated time-outs may develop poor emotion control because they are left alone without support and validation when they need it most.

"The misuse of a time-out is not only punishing but also alienating, and may spark a long-term physiological response," explains Blaine, licensed family and child therapist, mother of two boys. "In a worst-case scenario, they could internalize the emotional pain in order to cope, which can eventually turn into early childhood depression."

"Empathy is truly the foundation for effective parenting, and it is also necessary in creating a stronger bond between parent and child," she adds. "Time-outs are the antithesis of that."

What's the Alternative?

empathic momCool-Down or Thinking Time: Blaine advocates an alternate method that takes into account a child's developmental limitations and that serves as guidance rather than punishment. For children over two, she suggests using a "cool-down" or "thinking time" instead. Not only is this method gentle, it keeps the parent by the child’s side to help him learn to calm himself down and think through what happened.

Distract and Redirect: Incidentally, for babies two and under, Blaine recommends distraction and redirection instead. At this age your baby is simply too young to understand the concept of a thinking time; instead, give him a new item of interest or move him to an exciting location.

Using Cool-Down or Thinking Time Successfully

So, let's assume your child is older than two and you're ready to kick the old-school habit of time-outs to the curb. The following steps teach you how to use a cool-down or thinking time successfully:

1. Get down at your child's level. Be sure to maintain good eye contact; give a warning and ask if what she is doing is "okay" or "not okay."

2. If your child doesn't calm down or stop the unacceptable behavior, then lead him to a "quiet area" or "thinking area." Sit with him and offer assistance and love. Remember, this is not a punishment.

3. Be aware that time is not important -- having your child calm down is. Disregard the "one minute times your child's age" stance that most use as a guide. Don't give a five-year-old "five minutes to think"; sometimes the older child needs only a minute or two to come up with a better solution. On the other hand, a younger child may need to cuddle or sit with you for ten minutes until she's calm.

As you're sitting there, empathize, validate, and reflect what you see. An understood child is less likely to be fraught.

4. Once your child is calm, ask him to tell you "what's wrong" or "what's going on." Restate the problem again more clearly if he has difficulty.

5. Ask your child, "What will you do differently next time?" Name the expected behavior if she doesn't know.

6. Thank your child for helping you come up with a solution. It's important that he hears this positive reinforcement.

7. Set the expectation for the future by wrapping up with, "If you don't listen next time, what will happen?" Inform your child that you will take actions to help and that you will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.