To Use Time Out or Not?

A question for parents of preschoolers everywhere: what do you think about time out?  Do you never use it and frown upon parents who do?  Or would you be lost if you couldn’t use that timeless threat (stop that right now or it is time out for you!)?    

I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  Sometimes it is best for parents and kids to have a break from each other and asking children to spend a few minutes by themselves (preferably doing something which distracts them so they are not distressed) can be helpful. 

But I do have concerns about how much it gets used.  I think time out is one of many ways to respond to difficult behaviour in kids and it is only helpful when it is used sparingly, and in the right context.

Time out is like a hammer – and when you want to stick a nail into wood, a hammer is perfect.  But when you want to fix a leaky tap, undo a screw or dig a hole, using a hammer is going to be useless at best and destructive at worst.   (You should know that my hardware management skills are exceedingly poor, so I'm assuming this analogy works....but it's quite possibly you CAN use a hammer to fix a leaky tap, in which case, feel free to ignore this bit :))

The trouble with using time out as a punishment is that it assumes the only reason kids are doing the difficult thing is because they don’t have an reason or incentive to not do that annoying thing.  So we think, well if we give them a reason to stop doing the annoying, difficult thing (ie, if you don’t cut that out you’re going to time out) then hey presto, they’ll stop doing it or won't do it again.

The truth is that kids do difficult things for a whole lot of reasons – and not just because they don’t have an incentive to not to do them.  

For instance, sometimes kids do difficult things because of a lack of skill in some area.  In this case, time out won't help.  To understand this, let’s say your child is learning to catch a ball.  If they drop it – do you send them to time out?  Nope, you coach them through it (hey try putting your hands together and look at the ball) and try again.  Lots of difficult behaviour in kids occurs because of a lack of skills.  Kids are just not good a whole lot of things we ask of them – sharing, listening, paying attention, managing their feelings and switching their attention away from stuff they like to tasks that we’ve asked them to do – all of these things are tough to do.  They need coaching, training and help and time out doesn’t do any of this.

Kids also often do difficult things because of their distress.  Time out isn’t that helpful here either.  To think about this, let’s say your child is crying because they miss their grandpa who lives in another country.  Do you send them to time out?  No, you comfort them and try to help them feel better.  Ideally you try to teach them to help themselves feel better.  Lots of difficult behaviour in kids happens because they are distressed.  

The trouble is, we don’t always recognise this distress because unfortunately when kids get worried, sad, frustrated and uncomfortable, they don’t calmly say “Mum, I feel a little distressed right now and would like to be reassured and comforted”.   

Instead they yell, cry, hit, refuse to share, and don’t follow instructions.  Which is frustrating and tough for adults around them.  But the distress is still real.  Sending them to time out at this point doesn’t lower their distress, nor does it teach them to do positive and helpful things when they are distressed.

Teaching skills to kids and helping them to soothe themselves when they are distress is slower and harder work than using time out.  

But in the long run, it works a whole lot better in lots of circumstances.  So, yes, use the hammer if a hammer is needed.  But double check that a pair of pliers aren’t a whole lot more useful.

(Do pliers fix taps??? What fixes taps?  Spanners?  I've heard of all these things....they are all a mystery..)


Our online resource Calm Kid Central has videos and tip sheets for parents/carers on dealing with tricky behaviour, one on tools to use to reduce challenging behaviour, and one on how we can accidentally encourage difficult behaviour. There are also videos and activity sheets for children on tricks to calm down. To find out more click below: