When Timeouts Don’t Work

Show me a parent who has never pulled his or her hair out of sheer frustration with disciplining the kids, and I’ll show you a towering T-rex in a tuxedo.  We’ve all racked our brains out in trying to come up with an effective way to get our kids to behave.  Our parenting skills are put to the test as we devise ways to discipline our children.   These tactics vary from punishment, to taking privileges away, to using timeouts.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most, if not all, of us have probably employed the time-honored tradition of the timeout as a method to instill discipline in our kids.  Sometimes though, this strategy of steering our kids away from his erring ways just doesn’t work.  The timeout suddenly turns into a major battle, as the kid acts out and forcefully rejects being made to sit quietly in a corner.  Instead of seeing an improved change in behavior, the parent ends up only more frustrated.

Why does this method fail, then?  During a timeout, the kid feels isolated and afraid.  Timeouts teeter on the effectiveness scale when we yell at them as we send the kid to timeout.  He reacts instead of listens.  Timeouts seemingly do nothing to nurture a kid’s compassionate and confident nature.

Being too angry at that moment does cloud our better judgment, so we end up somewhat failing in our efforts at disciplining our kids.  Instead of a timeout, we can have the kid go sit in his room, and ask him to think about what he’s done.   He can write or draw what he thinks happened, and what he should do to make things right.  When you’ve calmed down, you can then enter his room and talk to him.  If he prefers to keep quiet, you can just sit there beside him, as you occasionally give him reassuring hugs.

There is not one method to correct a child’s behavior.  We as parents need to assess how our methods emotionally affect our kids, making sure that these tactics do not compromise our relationship with them.

About Pepper

I am a single working mom, trying to raise my kid the best way I know how. Join me as I navigate my way through the jungle that is Single Mom-hood, armed with rose-colored glasses and strength of spirit. As pepper adds spice to food, so does my daughter add spice to my life. She makes life no less than…PEPPERRIFIC!

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  1. nice idea, I will try to do this next time.

  2. Thoughtful piece, and beautifully written.

    I had an epiphany while reading about your notions of time out. I think it’s me who needs the time out, not my little one. You see, sometimes discipline can be easily metred so that really all that is required is a little corectioning and perhaps a discussion and then a cuddle. However, if there is heat in the moment, if i’m tired, frustrated … have 15 heads as my daughter puts it (ie busy) … then the incident can be escalated to dramatic heights at the speed of 1000 gazelles.

    So sometimes, being able to explain that mum needs the time out to regroup, to get her Zen spirit back, might actually be another tool that can be used as a way of disciplining and getting what we ultimately want from our kids … i might just go and have some time out now :-)

    • You’re right. mum has to go to her quiet corner to regroup. And you were right about things escalating at the speed of 1000 gazelles :)

  3. In process of parenting four daughters, I have definitely had “time outs” that didn’t work. One thing I’ve realized through the years is I need to get eye to my kids. Sometimes that requires a dose of humility. I have to lower myself to their level instead of towering over them. Eye to eye we communicate much better and behavior turns around much quicker.

    • Eye to eye communication does help get the message across. Thanks for bringing that up :) I will try to do more of that too.

  4. I still give an occasional time-out for immediately to change behaviors.
    I got tired of the whining and begging for stuff or just plain not listening.

    I give him two chances.
    I get down on his lever to tell him I am giving him the chance.
    If the behavior continues then I immediately remove him from the area and situation and he sits quietly for a time-out.
    It is not fun, I do not like being the bad guy. But it is changing him, little by little,


  5. You are right of course, but I wish you weren’t. I wish there was a one-size-fits-all parenting method which worked áll the time!

    • I wish I weren’t right too :). Yes, it would be so much easier if parenting came in a size which fits all.

  6. Yesterday Curly was hitting. He is 3. I didn’t want to spank him…that seemed counterproductive. So I put my arms around him and just held him tight. I told him if he couldn’t control his body I would do it for him until he could. I wasn’t mean and I didn’t squeeze but I was firm. It took him a minute or two until he said he could control himself and then it was over. It worked so well I may just use it again.

  7. Thanks for sharing this with us.. This tactics will be very useful to a lot of parents out there!!
    Hope you have a great week and thanks for the visit..Already a follower!!

  8. Kids generally want to be good and do the right thing and if they don’t – it’s either because they feel out of control, or simply because they don’t know (have forgotten in the heat of the moment) what that thing is. I find that the more you show respect for them and the more you come from a position that your kids are good, they just don’t know everything and need your guidance, the less necessary all those disciplinary methods become. I have a post coming up tomorrow for the Gentle Discipline blog carnival, I’ve written a bit more on that topic there.

  9. I never had a time out chair/spot for my children –I did send them to their rooms–as you said to think about what they did and a few minutes later, after I cleaned up whatever, or just cooled down myself-I’d go in and speak with them –sometimes they had to stay in there longer ,my kids don’t have any games or tvs in their room so its reading, drawing, or something of that nature—in their minds BORING!! But the next time they remember- how NOT FUN their rooms are so the behavior gets corrected quickly!! Sometimes they even remind each other if they see something against the rules being done!!

  10. I really like the idea of giving the child something to do in the time out, writing, or maybe drawing for a younger child is a great idea. I think the best thing about a time out is not what it does for the child but what id does for the adult. I need to clear my head and calm down so I can act my age and not the age of my child! It is tough! Thanks!

  11. Time outs work for us, but it takes consistency.

  12. Time outs rarely work well with my kids. We use charts where they earn prizes, and losing the chart is much more effective for them, most of the time. Figuring out discipline is hard work!

  13. Carla Barilá Karam says

    Pepper… raising my sons were not as challenging as it is raising my daughter… maybe because I am 20 years older.. never the less, I have tried everything with my daughter. Your suggesting they go into their room and write down things.. well this is intended for older children obviously.. but at five (learning to write) this does not work.. Believe me… I have tried everything.. Lately taking privileges away work good, as well as earning stickers. It really depends on the crime (lol)… but seriously, I have had to get very creative in Calley’s discipline.

  14. Timeouts don’t really work on my toddler but sometimes I have to send her to her room just so I can get a chance to breathe and cool down.

  15. Like time-outs, a lot depends on a kid’s individual personality. My older son, now 4, does ok with calmly executed (by me) timeouts, but that was not true when he was younger. I had heard time-outs were appropriate at 2 years old or so, but he would just get hysterical and no lesson was learned. For a while we had a “Thinking Spot” in the living room (which was just a towel on the floor) so that he could cool off but still be near me. Was much gentler and more effective.

  16. Good idea. I will keep this in mind when my baby gets a bit older!

  17. I love what you said about yelling not being the answer. It’s so true that when the parent yells in the heat of the moment, that’s all that the child will remember…instead of focusing on the thing that THEY did. That’s definitely something I can work on.

  18. Yue’s teacher introduced me to the concept of ‘timing-out’. They have the ‘time-out chair’ at school, and at home we have the ‘time-out corner’, lol. Pretty effective on my little rascal, if I may say. :)

  19. Kimberly says

    Timeouts don’t really work on my little ones either. I have sent my oldest son to his room to think about what he did and also to give me a few minutes to cool down as well.

  20. You are so right about this. Different things work for different children. And I’m finding that even different things work for the same children as they grow up! Thanks for sharing this perspective for everyone.

  21. Disciplining kids is so hard. Good suggestions.

  22. I try to issue a time-out from a non-emotional place. Most of the time, I explain to my son WHY he needs to take a break and that he can re-join the group when he feels he has calmed down, etc. THEN, after the time-out is over, we talk about what happened and try to come up with a solution. I usually let HIM do the brainstorming. (It’s the child counselor in me… can’t help it.) That being said, I’m not perfect and it doesn’t happen this way ALL the time. But I try to be consistent and that’s what matters most.

  23. I saw an idea for a timeout jar on the internet. The jar is filled with a heavy liquid and glitter. When the child is on time out, you tilt the jar to agitate the glitter and then have the child hold it and watch the glitter slowly settle down. The idea is that when the child is as calm as the glitter settled back in the bottom, then he/she can return! I thought it was a great idea; the very act of watching the glitter would have a wonderful calming effect on the child!
    Thanks for visiting me, Pepper! I am adding you to my reader!

  24. Timeouts and ‘go to your room’ never worked with my DD. I did find that we had to be creative and flexible as different types of discipline worked at different stages of her life.

  25. You make a lot of sense!!

  26. This is a fantastic piece! Great job! I agree with you. In my experience, traditional time outs don’t really work. What matters is communication. Children can only correct a behavior if you tell them that it’s wrong. How you communicate that to them should depend on your child and what works for you.

  27. Awesome ideas!

  28. a great idea Pepper! thanks for sharing!

  29. Jennifer | The Deliberate Mom says

    I don’t use time outs. I find any time I try to assert my will, I end up getting into a power struggle with my child. We try to talk through everything because regardless of the issue, there are valid feelings and thoughts behind all her actions. My job as a parent is to give her an opportunity to express them… and if her original expression was inappropriate then, she needs to be given the tools to succeed in future issues/situations.

    Parenting is hard work. Every child is as different and unique as every parenting style out there. We need to be in tune to our children to know what works best for them. Sharing, like you’ve done here, is critical because sometimes we get in a rut or we need a new idea. So thank you for sharing!

  30. sigrid @lovingmama says

    lately, as i consciously tried not to raise my voice on dindin, she has actually mellowed a lot and has become happier and more obedient. soemtimes i wonder, who should really make the assertion? i am so tired of getting angry everyday and when I stopped, the reasons that used to make me angry also stopped. imagine that. hay kids. hehehe

    • You’re right. I also noticed my daughter being more obedient when I approached her with a more positive attitude. Yes, we do get tired of getting angry everyday, don’t we?

  31. Although it’s not anymore a popular method in the West, I still believe in spanking misbehaving kids.

  32. I’m a big fan of sending my kids to their room for the exact reasons you stated. It gives both of us a “time out” to regroup before we continue to say things we don’t really mean out of anger. Its helpful for both of us.
    Now yesterday, someone gave me an awesome suggestion I will pass on. Instead of raising our voices to our children when we are angry, lean over and whisper in their ear. That will really scare them and get their attention. Haha! I can’t wait to try it!

  33. I have only given my daughter one time out in her 3.5 years. It affected her so much that after that one time, I only had to ask her if she ‘needed’ and she’s stop doing whatever she was doing. HOWEVER; it also proved to me that the time-out was not a good tool to use with her because she was obviously troubled by that one time out she received. In fact, the one time I slipped and asked her the other day, she started crying and saying “No, no time out! Please, Ma’ma!” That was painful to hear, and I promised her that we wouldn’t do timeouts anymore…

  34. We’ve started sending our girls to their rooms to cool off and think about what they’ve done. Most of the time we are all calmer.

  35. Unfortunately, there is not one fool-proof way of instilling discipline in all children. Discovering the method which works is probably part of the challenge of parenthood.

  36. Childcare says

    I was hopeful that this topic would provide me with a “fool proof” method for our 8 year old, but everything l read has been tried and failed in our household. I do not know what we are doing wrong, but everything we do dosn’t seem to have the desired results. We have watched so many episodes of Super Nanny and while she makes it look so simple to tame the wildest of kids, we just can’t win with our 8 year old.

    I should point out our 8 year old is not a “brat” nor is she super naughty. It just seems that some of her behaviors (like pulling/pushing her younger sister) are impossible to stop. Like l said, l do not know what we are doing wrong, but what ever it is l wish l knew and l wish l could help our 8 year old to “absorb” the lessons we are trying to teach.

    • Have you considered asking for intervention from a professional? Or could it be just a phase your 8-year old is going through? I hope things start to ease up a bit in your household.

      • Thanks for your reply Pepper. I think it is more of a phase…. it is a phase that occurs when my step daughter returns from being with her father. Usually her behaviour improves each day, until it is time for her to go to her dads again….. and the cycle starts over.

        We did have a go at professional help (Counsellor/Child Physcologyst) but after some 6 or 7 visits there was no real/visible difference so we ended up stopping further appointments.

        • My daughter used to act up too whenever she’d get back from a weekend at her dad’s. I guess it’s a manifestation of her confusion with the setup. Eventually, she outgrew that behavior. I hope your step daughter does too.

  37. This is definitely something that I can get better at. My defiant three year old doesn’t get anything from timeouts. It’s frustrating for her, it’s frustrating for me, no one wins. Time to start thinking about things differently. Thanks for your insights!

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