Toss the Time Out. It’s a Bad Parenting Strategy

You can read the 1st part of this post here.

Ok, so you’re on board about why we should toss the time outs!  Great!  Now what!  Well, the alternative is what one of my favorite parenting people Dr. Laura Markham calls “Time-In

Your child is acting cranky and belligerent.  Many of us had parents that ignored our behavior until he escalated.  So that’s what we do.  We’re busy, we control our kids until finally they flipped their lid.  Should we send them to a timeout so they can regroup?  No.

Ultimately, the goal is to intervene before they escalate.  As your child’s volume goes up they smack the dog, realize that the behavior is a red flag, and we should move quickly to provide assistance. If she could articulate what’s going on, she might say:

“Hey Mom and Dad, I’m really struggling here.  I didn’t get enough sleep last night; I spent the whole day in first grade trying to do sheet work when I really just need to run and get my wiggles out.  My friend wouldn’t play with me at lunch, because I wouldn’t do the game the way she wanted, and now that I’m home I’m really hungry and dinner is an hour away and I’m frustrated because you’re not listening to me ask you for a snack that I enjoy or anything else.  Don’t you understand, I don’t feel like you love me right now!  Ugh!”

Unfortunately, the only way her a little self has developed to express any is through emotional expression she uses to learn the words we train her to express.  She’s been stuffing her feelings all day waiting for a safe chance to let her hair down with you, now all her emotions are coming up so she’s “acting (the feelings) out.”

The unconditional parent stops for a minute to consider the source of the child’s behavior, much like the source code behind the website.  What you see on the site is not really what’s going on behind the scenes.  What’s going on behind the scenes is far more important.  So you summon up all your compassion. You remind yourself that she is still a little person whose behavior is a cry for help.

Take a deep breath, count to 3 and say something like:“Awww, I see that you’re having a hard time, aren’t you, precious? (This is step one in my 3 part process:  Connect, Reflect & Correct.  In step 1, we “say what we see” to connect with our kids).  Sounds like you feel frustrated.  Child:  “Uh huh, and your not even feeding me or listening to me!”  Mom:  “I hear you that you don’t think I am interested in feeding you or listening to you, is that right?”  This is step 2, Reflect where you “say what you hear.” Child:  “Uh huh, sniff.” Mom:  I have an idea, why don’t you go grab one of your new books and will snuggle and I will be to you a few minutes.  Child:  “Ok!”  Also, right now I want to let you also know that dogs are not for smacking, so can we try again?”  This is step 3, where you correct or redirect your child’s behavior to something satisfactory.  You don’t reward their behavior, but simply have the practice what they can do, rather than criticizing what they did or telling them what they can’t do.

Then, you both go to a specially designated spot that feels safe and cozy, and snuggle up. You connect, which may be all your child needs to pull herself together. Most children need this re-connection time daily, if they’ve been away from you.  A minimum of 20 minutes per child is honestly the least amount of time you want to be spending.

After the story, I always like to make my kids laugh, laughter gets good endorphins flowing the brain, and research shows just forcing your mouth into a smile releases chemicals that lead to positive feelings.

Now, you are doing our best, nevertheless, sometimes your child will still need more.  She may continue to exhibit frustration.  That might mean she still needs to really cry, or process her emotions and she’s trying to pick a fight with you so she can move into tears. So at that point, you calmly, kindly, set a limit:

“I see you’re still upset sweetie, I understand.  There’s lots of times when I’m upset so I know how that feels.  You’re tearing the book pages,… Books are precious, we don’t tear them… We’re going to put the book away for now.”

You put the book out of reach, and she bursts into tears.  This is the defining moment for you.  Many parents are uncomfortable with negative emotion.  They often times try to dissuade their children from expressing unhappiness, tears or anger and frustration.  It’s important at this point to remind yourself that emotions are simply information, giving us insight into what might be going on for somebody.  Our job is to create a safe place for kids to feel, and let down.

If you have a younger child she might yell, “Go away!” you can say “I will move back a bit, just to here…I won’t leave you alone with these big scary feelings….I’m here when you need a hug.” Use your voice as a bridge to tell her she’s safe, you’re right there. Don’t talk much. Don’t ask her what’s wrong. Don’t take anything she says personally. Talking forces kids into their heads. Let her stay in her heart and unburden her emotions.

Soon, the storm will pass. Your child will be in your arms, hugging you and wanting to know that she’s still loved. She’ll feel so grateful that you were there for her and so connected to you. You’ll see that by her sunny, cooperative attitude for the rest of the evening.

Wondering if you should punish her now, so she’ll learn not to smack the dog? Completely unnecessary, and in fact it would be detrimental. She’s already learned that she doesn’t want to hit the dog the next time, and some other crucial lessons:

  • Emotions may feel overwhelming, but once I let myself feel them, they pass away, and then the sun comes out again. 
    (Becoming comfortable with her emotions means she doesn’t need to stuff them, so she can actually start to control those impulses, and therefore, her behavior.)
  • My parents love me for who I am, not for what I do.  This includes when I’m feeling difficult emotions. 
    (Feeling “good enough exactly as I am” is the foundation of self-esteem.)
  • When I’m upset, I feel an urgent need to act, but I don’t have to. It’s good to take a few minutes to sit with it….that makes the feelings go away, so I can choose to act differently.
    (She’s learning skills to regulate her emotions, and therefore her behavior.)
  • My parents are on my side. I don’t actually need to hit the dog, even when I’m really upset. My parents are always ready to listen and help me.
    (Strengthening the trust in the parent-child partnership so the child WANTS to cooperate.)
  • After I calm down, I can always figure out a way to make things better. 
    (That’s the first step in accepting that nobody’s perfect, but we can always admit, and repair, our mistakes.)

Time-in is not a punishment. It’s a way of meeting your child’s needs so he doesn’t have to act out. Specifically, you’re giving them the connection that’s essential so she can regulate herself. And you’re helping her process her big emotions, so she’s ready to problem-solve and repair.


Try it for a month. You’ll be so pleased with the results, you’ll never go back to time-outs again.



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