Time Out Or Time To Think?

Isolating children when they don’t meet our expectations of behavior is one method of implementing time-out. Using time-out may be one of the most popular discipline methods used by parents today. Carl Larsson, the Swedish artist, did a painting in 1897 of an older boy sitting in time-out. The time-out technique has been around for a long time, sometimes used in a positive way, but much too often used in a punitive way.

How can we know if our time-outs are punitive or positive?

If we send a child to sit in the corner or tell them to “go to your room” and our intention is to motivate the child to act differently using shame or guilt, we are using time-out as punishment. When we try to use guilt and shame to make our children change we fall for the faulty assumption that making our child feel bad about their behavior will teach them how to act differently. More often than not our punitive agenda has our children sitting and thinking that they are “bad”, or thinking of ways of how not to get caught next time, or thinking of ways to get even.

Positive time-out can help our children learn to calm their emotions and learn to choose how they will behave. Using time-out as a learning tool gives our children time to cool-off from a frazzling situation and time to regroup to try again. For the child under six years old, many emotionally charged moments involve being too tired, too hungry or too over-whelmed with a new situation. We need to deal with those issues with other methods from our parenting toolbox before positive time-out.

What does a space for a positive time-out look like?

First, children should be involved in creating a spot in your home that will help them regain their composure. This place may be a corner or chair in their bedrooms or your family room with pillows, music, books, stuffed animals, or favorite toys. Let them give their space a name. A three-year-old student of mine called his rocker his “rock it away chair”.

Once you’ve worked with your child to create a safe and calming space, let them know that when you see them needing some time to calm down or “rock it away” you’ll say something like, “Would it help you if you could go to your special place?” If your child says, ‘No,” you can offer to go with them. If that offer is refused, you can always go to your own space to calm down! You’ll be modeling how to remove yourself from a situation in order to regroup.

The purpose of positive time-out is to help a child learn to calm his or her emotional brain and regroup. It is not about punishing our children for their behavior, but a tool to help them learn to control their emotions and redirect their behavior, independently. Using positive time-out should not be the only parenting tool in your toolbox, or the one you pull out first when situations get a bit tense. Also, positive time-out is more appropriate for children over three years of age, depending on developmental needs.

If you choose to use time-out, always ask yourself, “Am I doing this to punish or instruct?”

With that answer you’ll know if it is an appropriate parenting tool. We all—children and adults–do better when we feel positive about the direction we are headed. Guilt and shame are not the motivators we want to use.

Helping children learn to listen

8 Responses to “Time Out Or Time To Think?”

  1. Omg. This is such an eye opener!
    No wonder I have now heard of 2 elementary schools using Mindfulness meditation room and Not a detention room! That’s a positive time out with the desired outcome of calming his emotional brain and regrouping!
    So clear now.
    Yes! We are going to create a peace area in our house for the 1st time!
    Thank you Maren Schmidt for a wonderful practical blog once more!

  2. Emilie Wilkinso

    Thank you for explanation and suggestions. I also like the mindfulness meditation space idea. So many children these days need sensory breaks and this is a great idea. My grandson is one of these children and he just started a new Montessori school when he moved to Oregon. He was so excited to tell me about the jungle loft in his room where he can go if he needs to “get away.” I’m so grateful.

  3. Very thoughtful sharing on the importance for self-reflection in all of us, adults and children.

    A question I often ask myself, and offer to the parents I work with, is “whose needs are being met in this response or direction/guidance of our child?”

    For me I continue to discover ways that bring me more deeply into myself and my feelings……yoga, meditation, contact with my breath, being outdoors…these support me.

    I often notice that when the need for time-out, positive or not, arise, that it is the parents who might benefit the most in those moments. And as we care for ourselves in those ways, then we model for our children ways of being with their experiences and feelings.

    So, I guess I have mixed feelings with the application of time-out as a direction given to children, other than in the natural way of giving time for ourselves to reflect and connect….whatever the circumstances.

    • Pamela,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Helping our children (and ourselves!) learn to self-regulate our emotions is a key component to being in control of our lives.

      If we model calmness and thoughtfulness, our children will learn that by our example.

      And if we are frazzled…well..they learn that too.

      Knowing that all of us have moments that we need to calm down is a positive message for our children.

      And that it is okay to take some time to regroup when necessary.

  4. If my 4 yo is doing something he is not supposed to do, such as throwing something or hitting, he would love nothing more than to go to a spot to play by himself. But this doesn’t teach him not to hit/throw.

    Oftentimes he does this when he is overly tired and he doesn’t want to get ready for bed. Having him go to a special spot to play doesn’t help his schedule when it is time to get ready for bed. Can you please help? Thank you!

    • Ben,

      As I mention, positive time-out is not the first tool to come out of the parent toolbox.

      A key question to ask is: Why is he choosing to throw something or hit something?

      You mention that he does this “oftentimes” when he is overly tired or doesn’t want to go to bed.

      So, one key is that you create situations where he doesn’t get overly tired.

      When we are tired it is harder to control our emotions, especially if you are four!

      Next, is teach him how to handle situations where he is feeling out of control. Perhaps that means going to his quiet spot to recenter and calm himself.

      Another skill is to help him learn how to state his feelings. For example: I am tired. I am frustrated. I am angry.

      One game I like to teach to young children is the “What If” game.

      When all is calm (because calmness is the time for a teachable moment, not when everything is in chaos) bring in a scenario.

      For example: What if you were tired and angry. Instead of hitting and throwing things…What could you say? What could you do?

      Help him come up with alternative behaviors and practice them with him.

      For example: Yes, you could say, “I am angry.” Let’s practice saying that together. Yes, you could go to your quiet spot. Let’s practice doing that. Yes, you could go jump on your trampoline. Let’s practice doing that.

      When he begins to hit or throw, say his name and look him in the eye to make sure you have his attention. Say, “Stop”. When he stops say: “Remember what we talked about if we felt like hitting or throwing things. Remember? Yes, you could …..”

      Some Kids Talk articles that might be helpful:


      Let me know how it goes, or if you have any other questions.


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