Monday 3 October 2011

Ten alternatives to time-outs

As parents begin to seek a more gentle method of discipline, they often start by dropping the obvious punishments, such as spanking or removal of unrelated privileges. Finding themselves without tools to enforce their instructions, they begin to rely heavily on traditional time-outs in place of their former punishments.

The traditional form of time-out involves sending a child to a particular spot (their bedroom, a "naughty chair", the corner, etc) for a particular length of time (often one minute per year of age) in order to "think about what they've done." For most children, however, the time is spent in anger, stewing over the apparent injustice of their punishment. When used arbitrarily or too often, it prevents the child from understanding the true consequences of their action and fails to get to the root of the behaviour. The overall message becomes one of rejection rather than teaching, causing the child to withdraw and damaging the parent/child relationship.

Sometimes a child does need time and space to be alone in order to cool off. In those instances, rather than setting a timer, it is preferable to allow the child to return when s/he is feeling in control once again. "You may not continue to hit/kick/speak rudely/etc. Go cool down in your room and return when you are able to treat your family kindly." This is followed with a calm discussion and reconnection. However, this method works best for an older child who has already been taught the skills needed to know how to calm themselves down, who has previously exhibited the need to be alone in order to do this, and for whom being alone is not a frightening event. Many other children and situations require a different response.

While there is no single answer to cover all circumstances, having a variety of tools will allow parents to best meet the needs of their unique child in their unique situation. Here we will explore ten alternatives to time-outs; as always, I welcome your additional gentle discipline tools in the comments below.

1. Time-In

Children must be actively parented through their intense emotions in order to learn how to process and move past them in a healthy way. A time-in is a prime opportunity for this type of teaching, providing the child with vital skills that will serve them throughout their life.

Rather than depriving children of their parents' attention, a time-in is time together to build relationship, communication, and cooperation. It places the parent and child on the same side rather than pitting them against one another.

During a time-in, the parent and child can focus on working through the situation. It is a time of connection that includes both physical touch and eye contact. The parent can teach the child a variety of calming techniques (deep breathing, drawing, physical outlets, etc) and then move on to discussing the emotions behind the behaviour. What led up to it? What are better alternatives for next time?

A time-in can also be used proactively. In this sense, the parent ensures the child receives focused attention at regular intervals, thereby strengthening the parent/child relationship and meeting the child's emotional needs. This builds cooperation while reducing negative attention-seeking behaviour.

2. Comfort Corner

A comfort corner is an opportunity for the child to regroup in a calming environment, surrounded by things that bring them comfort. A comfort corner may include pillows, blankets, books, stuffed animals, water, snacks, a mind jar, a notepad and pencil, music, or any other item that brings the child comfort or helps them to refocus. It should be private but not isolated; it may be located in a corner of the main living area, in a bedroom, in a small alcove, on a comfortable chair, or even tucked away in a tote bag to be pulled out when needed.

A comfort corner is often used, particularly with young children or when first introduced, in conjunction with a time-in. Again, this is an opportunity to assist the child in dealing with their intense emotions, teaching them the skills needed to regroup and refocus. A child must be taught how to calm down and regroup before you can request that they do so. The goal of the comfort corner is for the child to learn how to do these things for themself.

Rather than a punishment, the comfort corner should be a positive experience, a place of calm and comfort. When the child is in need of a quiet break, direct them to the comfort comfort. If they protest, guide them there for some cuddling. "I can see you are having trouble controlling yourself. Let's go to the comfort corner together and I will show you how you can help yourself to feel better." The child is free to leave the comfort corner when s/he feels they are ready.

Parents can model this practice when they are feeling frustrated or angry. "I am feeling ___. I am going to go sit somewhere quiet and listen to music for a few minutes until I feel more calm." This is modelling the essential life skill of recognizing when you need to remove yourself from a situation to calm down, regain your composure, and correct your attitude.

3. Prevention

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." A parent can set the child up for success by ensuring the child's physical needs (healthy diet, adequate sleep, physical activity, sensory outlets) and emotional needs (love, attention, security) are met. Consider the child's environment as well. Excess clutter or noise can negatively impact a child's behaviour; anger and tension will have negative effects as well.

4. Look Beyond the Behaviour

Look beyond the child's behaviour to its underlying cause or driving need. Is the child hungry? tired? hurt? lonely? Is the child teething? Does the child need a physical or sensorial outlet? Does a growing child need additional responsibilities to challenge and occupy their growing minds? A traditional time-out deals with only the symptom; move beyond that to deal with the root cause.

5. Playful Parenting

Playful parenting can be an ideal way to diffuse tension and regain cooperation. Play can also be used to help a child work through their feelings. Rather than engaging in a power struggle, lighten the situation with silliness. Role-playing, task races, and exaggerated threats are some common playful parenting techniques.

6. Distraction and Redirection

Sometimes a simple distraction or redirection is sufficient to deal with the situation; not every incident requires a direct head-on approach. As with playful parenting, this is an ideal way to circumvent a power struggle, given the right circumstances. In the same vein, a change in the environment can shift everyone into a better mood: head outdoors, run a bath, go to the library, or put on some music.

7. Empathy

Sometimes a child just wants to be heard. Take a moment to empathize with the child. Listen to, reflect back, and validate their feelings. When necessary, assist the child in expressing those feelings in a healthy, appropriate, and acceptable manner. "Try again" is a useful script for a child who has already been coached on appropriate expressions of feelings and just needs the reminder to use a proper tone.

8. Put the Ball in Their Court

Empower the child to take responsibility for rectifying the situation. Depending on the age and particular circumstances, this can take a variety of forms, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • offer them a choice between two or three acceptable alternatives
  • use the "when...then..." script ("when your room is clean, then we can go to the park")
  • sit down and brainstorm solutions to a problem with them, allowing them to be a full participant in the process
  • give them the responsibility for righting the wrong (cleaning up the mess, making amends to the hurt party, following through on given instructions, etc)

The goal is to empower them to accept responsibility for their actions, think for themselves, consider the alternatives, make a decision, and follow through with solving the situation.

9. Talk and Problem-Solve

In a quiet, calm voice, talk through the situation if the child is the right frame of mind for a discussion. Seek their perspective on the matter and offer your own. If emotions are running too high in the heat of the moment, talk through the situation later after both parent and child have had time to calm down and regroup. The purpose of our parenting should be problem-solving and teaching, not behaviour-training through consequences or punishments.

10. Shift Perspective

Sometimes we allow our own feelings and frustrations to erupt on our families. We overreact to innocent childish behaviour, wanting them out of our hair so we can have a few precious moments to be still and think. Sometimes it's us who need to take a time-out of sorts.

Regardless of the situation, a parent can begin by taking a deep calming breath. Walk away from the situation if you need to calm down, regain your composure, or gain perspective on the situation. Is the situation as urgent or important as your initial reaction would suggest? Are you able to separate the child's behaviour from the child themselves? What do you want to teach your child, going forward, through the way you handle this situation? Keep in mind that the goal is to find a solution, not a consequence or punishment.

Once you have regrouped, go back to your child and request a do-over. Be willing to apologize if your initial reaction warrants it. Get down on your child's level and reconnect with a hug. Take a moment to hear their point of view, and then seek a solution together.

A special note about aggressive behaviour:  Most hitting can be prevented by consistent action when the child is very small. The first time a toddler swings with the intent to hit, catch their arm mid-swing and firmly say, "no hitting; hitting hurts". Then gently stroke your cheek with the child's hand while saying "gentle". Repeat consistently. This nips most hitting in the bud, with a simple "gentle" being sufficient to remind them to use their hands gently.

However, sometimes hitting behaviour will persist, appear at later stages, or simply occur in the heat of the moment. When a child hits another child, a logical consequence is removal from play with the other children. "You hit, you sit." This gives you an opportunity to comfort the child who was hit. You can then attend to the child who did the hitting, reiterating that hitting is unacceptable and allowing them the opportunity to explain the situation (if they are old enough) and/or calm down with you until they are in control of themselves and ready to resume playing with the other children. This can be used in conjunction with the techniques listed above.

When a child hits a parent, the parent can state clearly and firmly that they will not allow the child to hurt them. This is an excellent opportunity to model strong boundaries. A particularly aggressive child may need to be restrained until they have regained control. Once the child is calm, teach the child what they can do to express their anger (drawing "angry pictures", writing out their feelings, talking through the situation, doing an "angry dance", etc). Anger is acceptable; hitting is not.

Additional Resources:
Positive Time-Out by Jane Nelsen
Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish


  1. Hi,

    I've been reading youy blog for a couple of weeks now and must say it's a very interesting blog. :)
    I want to thank you for all these alternatives for a time out. This is exactly what I try to do with my two girls; 3 and 1 years of age. Sometimes it's hard to find new creative ways to deal with situations.

    By the way; sorry for my poor English, it's not my first language.

  2. Great list! For anyone looking for a few more ideas, I wrote a list that might also be helpful:

    It always feels better to turn potentially negative situations into moments of connection!

  3. Dee, I'm glad you found it helpful!

    Dionna, thanks so much for sharing that list. Great ideas there!

  4. As I was reading I would think of something else good to go along with what you were saying -- and then another paragraph down you would say it :). Apparently you and I are on the same page.

    I LOVE the idea of the mind jar!

    Mock threats ftw. Rich is better about it than I am, but a common threat in our house is, "If you don't stop X, I'm gonna stick your head in the toilet." If he does it again, Rich says, "Okay, I guess it's time to stick your head in the toilet!" and picks him up, upside down, to carry him to the bathroom. By the time they get there Raiden is saying, "NOOO!! I'll stop antagonizing you!" and we move on. I wish I could remember that more often!

    Validating. Yes. That is a big one for me. Sharing their feelings, too, seems to help, at least with me. "I know you're sad we don't get to X right now; I'm sad, too, because that sounds like a lot of fun. Right now it's time to Y, but I bet if you're really nice while we Y, we can come back and X later." (We've been working a lot, lately, on "we can after Z, yes" [our alternative to "not right now"] not having to be the end of the world.)

  5. I love that we're on the same page, Karyn. Ah, sharing feelings! Great one. Wish fulfillment is really helpful around here, too: "You want some ice cream but we don't have any. I wish the stores were still open so I could get some for us! What flavour would you want? Oh, I love that one too. Mint chocolate chip is my favourite though. Should we go read a book?"

  6. Thanks for this post!! It's good to hear that I am not the only parent who uses a different method! And good to be reminded of some other strategies.
    We use""calm-down" time. My 5.5 yr old is good now with knowing when he is ready to join the rest of the family. I tell him to go to the room, read books, play, think, and when he is ready, to come out. He usually takes 5 minutes, and then comes out saying "Mum, I'm ready to make things right". Although sometimes (like this morning!) he gets so involved in what he is doing that he stays in there for much longer!
    The benefit is that both boys understand that sometimes mum also needs "calm-down time". And I get the opportunity to lock myself in the room for 10 minutes when I am feeling very overwhelmed and ready to burst. Works wonders for me too!

  7. What a great benefit that is, Zephan! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  8. Noticing when most problems occur benefits. The most problems in the house are when I am cleaning in a room the children are not playing in or when I am cooking. I explain to them that time spent alone in creative expression is something everyone needs for good health. I teach the children that I don't ground them from playig with friends for the same reason. Everyone needs time with their friends sometimes, but they need to be alone sometimes, too. So I bring out supplies and have them each sit someplace apart and let them paint, draw, color, make up stories etc. for up to an hour. Making sure their time alone, with friends, and family time is balanced helps.

  9. I'm glad you and others find this helpful. However, it seems like "helicopter parenting". Parents can give children boundaries, and if they are crossed, time outs can be a period for children to realize there are consequences for crossing them. I think parents can us time outs without making their children feel isolated or shunned if they let them know it is in response to their incorrect behavior.

    1. I can see how it must sound like helicopter parenting at first glance. Helicopter parenting, however, refuses to acknowledge the child's strengths and weaknesses, nor does it affirm healthy, age-appropriate independence. Attachment parenting/gentle discipline (AP/GD), on the other hand, works from a foundation of strong attachment in order to allow such healthy independence to naturally unfold in the child. It also encourages the child's strengths and works to build areas of weakness. Helicopter parenting and AP/GD are, at their core, incompatible.

      These alternatives to time-outs work to build (rather than suppress) the child's emotional awareness and expression, to strengthen the parent/child bond, and to increase the child's sense of security (which leads to healthy independence). The parent acts as a supportive guide through the process, neither rescuing nor punishing the child but instead teaching the child more appropriate ways of behaving and expressing themselves going forward.

      I hope that clarifies the difference.

    2. Agree with Hippie Housewife's response but also to add - the response to incorrect behaviour should be a natural consequence to that behaviour (such as cleaning up something you've spilt, or giving empathy and a hug to someone you've hit in anger. It shouldnt need to be sitting alone in a corner, what does that teach them?

  10. thank you for posting

    I don't believe in spanking. We give timeouts... :-/ of course that doesn't solve the problem 50% of the time

    can u come to my house and coach me :-) i strive to be more calm but i just seem to revert back to angry mommy :-/ that doesn't make anyone happy

  11. I agree 100%... "The purpose of our parenting should be problem-solving and teaching, not behaviour-training through consequences or punishments."

    Thanks for this post. Lately, I have been finding myself extremely frustrated with my 2.5 year old daughter. We are constantly complimented on how well-behaved/polite she is, but there are times when she can be a little terror. When she doesn't get her way, she swats at me (or my husbands) and screams! I always catch her arm and firmly state, "Stop. That hurts me. You may not hit." Then I continue to validate her feelings ("I understand you're upset... & so on...) & give her an alternative to express her feelings (using her words, etc...)
    But lately I'm at a loss for what to do when we're in public. For instance, the other day she threw a HUGE fit because she didn't want to sit in her stroller at the mall. I really needed her to sit in it for safety because I have never been to this mall before. It was just as much a physical struggle as it was an emotional one. I tried to explain WHY she needed to sit in the stroller, but it wasn't working. Should I just continue along with my "discipline routine" and wait until she's a little older? Or do I remove her from the situation and leave the mall? Any bit of advice would be greatly appreciated!
    *Hopefully you will see this as I just realized this post was from 2011, but I just found it on Pinterest this morning, LOL!