What’s the Problem with Time-Out, Anyway?

Lately, it seems parents and carers feel disempowered. We’re not supposed to smack, and now even time-out is being questioned.  So how do we discipline?  And what’s wrong with time-out, anyway?

Discipline (the verb) can mean either ‘to teach’, or ‘to control’ (Gordon, T. 1989).  If we use discipline to control children, then we rely on reward and punishment to change a child’s behaviour – to gain compliance.

One of the most commonly used punishments is time-out. Many schools, childcare centres and parents rely on time-out as a punishment, to discipline children.

During the years my daughter attended childcare we had several discussions around her fear of punitive time-out.  Her distress, and my experience as a parent educator, drove me to investigate the effects of time-out.


What is Time-Out?

For the purposes of this discussion, the definition of time-out is a punishment.  A child is excluded from being with others for a certain period of time. They may stay in the same room (say, the ‘naughty corner/step’), or be moved to another room for a certain period of time (for example, one minute for each year of life). The parent or carer controls when and where the child goes to time-out, and when the child is allowed to return to the class or family.

A Child’s Experience of Time-Out in Childcare

Many years ago I recorded a wide-ranging discussion with my daughter.  She had just turned five, and was not happy about going to childcare. One of her concerns was that she was afraid of being counted (1,2,3), because the threat at the end was . . . time-out. As this transcript shows, her fear of this punishment was palpable.

Phoebe:     “I didn’t get into trouble.  We don’t get into trouble.  We just get to three   We just have to . . . they just say ‘OK you’re onto one!’  And when you’re onto free you’re . . . um (voice breaking with fear) . . . and when you’re onto free, um that’s your last, that’s your last warning when you get onto free.  When you get onto two, that’s . . . you’ve got one last chance to go, OR . . . time-out!”

Mum:        “Oh really.  Three is time out.  And you look very worried about time out. “

Phoebe:   “Uh ha”

Interestingly, my daughter had never actually been put into punitive time-out at either childcare or home.  Her deep concern was based on her observation of the effects of time-out on her friends.  I wondered to myself – if time-out had such an effect on observers – what was the experience of children who were actually punished with time-out?

The Effects of Time-Out.

Time-out and isolation, ostracism and self-concept

When a child is excluded from interacting with others (time-out), they are effectively ostracised (isolated from relationship) by those more powerful than them – parents and teachers.

Recent brain research suggests that isolating people from others important to them causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural paths in our brain as physical pain or illness. (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T.  2014). Is time-out really a gentle alternative to smacking, when the child has a similar physical experience of both punishments?

Ostracism studies in adult relationships found that excluding people threatens the needs of: self-esteem; belonging; control; and meaningful existence (Williams, K, 2007).  If this is the effect on adults, how much greater is the impact of social isolation on children?

Excluding a child from family/class activity, while keeping the child in the same room (‘quiet time’), is perceived as a ‘softer’ punishment than banishment to another room.  However, quiet time may be more harmful. A child essentially becomes ‘invisible’ (think of the dunce’s hat).  Not being acknowledged, the public shame of exclusion, feeling as though you don’t exist . . . isn’t this potentially devastating for a child?

Time-out does not teach social and emotional life skills

“What’s done to children, they will do to society” (Karl A. Menninger).   Remember – discipline means ‘to teach’. At its essence, time-out is a method of resolving conflict between a caregiver and a child, where the caregiver wins and the child loses. When parents or caregivers use their power to put a child in time-out, children learn that this is how to resolve conflict.

Is time-out a useful relationship skill?  How will a child put time-out into practice when playing with friends, or in future adult relationships? Do they learn that when you don’t like what someone else does, one way to deal with it is to exclude that person? Conceivably, children subjected to time-out may learn to bully by excluding their peers or siblings.  A recent study with teenagers has uncovered social exclusion as being more damaging to a young person’s mental health, than other bullying behaviour such as teasing or spreading rumours.

Time-out does not seek to understand the reason for the behaviour

When we use time-out to punish a child for misbehaving, we forget to look for the unmet need that led to the behaviour.  They may have been bullied at school, or they may simply be tired and hungry.  Their parents may have argued this morning, or they may be very worried about their sick grandparent.  When we put a child straight into time-out, have we then lost an opportunity to understand and connect with our child?

Time-out and divorce, separation and trauma

Consider the potential effect of time-out on children: whose parents have separated or are separating; who have been adopted or fostered; who have separation anxiety; or are affected by trauma. Time-out with these children may exacerbate feelings of abandonment, rejection or confusion.

These children need connection, not isolation.  They need to have their underlying issues understood.  They need to be held in a safe space (physically and emotionally), in relationship, to help heal the hurt.

Alternatives to punitive time-out include:

  • Replacing the use of rewards and punishment with positive relationship skills, including no-lose conflict resolution. Courses such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) teach how to avoid rewards and punishment; to communicate respectfully with children; and help them build an inner discipline.
  • Active Listening (also known as emotion coaching) when your children are unhappy or agitated, to help calm them down. Recognising what they are feeling is an essential step in children learning to self-regulate. Active Listening helps you comfort and connect with your child, and you can then help them reflect on their emotions
  • Time-away’;’ Cosy Corner’; ‘Calm Down Space’. Have a special place for your child to regroup and calm down. Let her or him listen to music, play, draw, or read – similar to the way we, as adults, calm ourselves. Your child can then return when feeling better about the situation and ready to reconnect to the relationship – in the child’s own time.  This also helps them learn the skills of self-regulation.
  • Time-in’ – being with and enjoying the company of children, giving them love and attention, remembering what you like about them, and letting them know. Delight in the little person who is in your care.

This blog was condensed from the extended article, The Trouble with Time Out.


Gordon, T, 1989. Teaching Children Self Discipline: At Home and at School. 1st ed. America: Random House.

Daniel J Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. 2014. Time-outs Are Hurting Your Child. [ONLINE] Available at: http://time.com/3404701/discipline-time-out-is-not-good/. [Accessed 27 April 15].

Williams, Kipling (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology.


Larissa Dann

Larissa is a parent who, many years ago, attended a parenting course. The skills and approach of that program influenced her life so profoundly that she became a parent educator. She is now an experienced instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), having taught over 1000 people, including parents, teachers and practitioners. Larissa uses the skills everyday, endeavouring to ‘practice what she preaches’. She is an accredited P.E.T. facilitator, group leader, and counsellor. She feels privileged each time she teaches, as she observes the communication skills empower children, parents and carers in a relationship of respect. Larissa is now enjoying dabbling in the area of written reflections, otherwise known as blogs.

10 thoughts on “What’s the Problem with Time-Out, Anyway?”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Larissa for this succinct discussion on the problems with using ‘time out.’ I believe that it fails as a strategy because it doesn’t respect children’s dignity and rights as human beings. We would regard sending an adult to a large ‘naughty’ chair, or asking them to sit somewhere on their own away from others and away from what is happening as disrespectful and humiliating and yet some adults think that is ok for children.

    Larissa says:

    Thank you so much, Anne. I really like the points you made. Asking ourselves whether we’d talk to our neighbour the same way we talk to our children, or whether we’d do something such as time-out on our friends, can be a great test of whether we are modelling respect to our little people.

    Vickie L DiSanto says:

    Great material here!
    Tomorrow evening I’m conducting a training on developmentally appropriate classroom practices for a group of child care providers (both center and family). Part of it discusses discipline policies and positive approaches. I always get “but time out works for me.” Would you mind if I use your list of effects?

    Larissa says:

    Thank you very much, Vickie. I’m pleased you found the article helpful, and I would be more than happy for you to share this material. You might also find this blog, and its links, useful in terms of alternatives to time-out. http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/putting-gentle-parenting-into-practice-the-possibilities-of-reasoning-with-the-very-young/

    Alicia says:

    Well, although I take your points as very valuable perspectives I also feel that there are times when taking sime time to think about our actions is very helpful. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a punishment but time to reflect and then discuss why things have happened and how we can help the child develop in the areas they need more support in.

    Larissa says:

    Thank you, Alicia. As you suggest, as long as it’s not punitive, we all (adults and children) probably need time to reflect about interactions, in order to repair the relationship.

    Suzan broadbent says:

    Actually we do give adults time out. Some call it gaol. When an adult person hurts us, we might distance ourselves for a while until the hurt subsides. Cooling down when we are angry is not just a good idea but essential to help us think things through. So yes time out is a good strategy that is built on as we get older.

    Marion Brook says:

    I don’t use time out as such. Although I do explain to children that if they hit others they will be asked to leave the play for the safety of others. And you are right Suzan, if another adult hit me I certainly would, at minimum, exclude them from my social circle and if it happened more than once I’d undoubtedly caal the police and have charges laid on them. Perhaps it is an important lesson that children need to learn – dangerous, threatening or harmful behaviour leads to social exclusion.

    Kathryn Yew says:

    This is a very timely post for me to read, as I reflect on my practice as an Early Childhood Educator/nanny.

    Guidance and self-discipline:
    Building children’s knowledge, reason and personal motivation to choose compliance with our requests – with the ultimate goal being for them to consistently seek, figure out and use good judgement independently.

    Example 1 —

    One of the powerful highlights in my career has been seeing a 3 1/2 year old child state, “hey! don’t hit my waterbottle, if you do, it will fall on the floor and water will spill out.” This child’s default response to disputes was often to break down in fearful distress.

    Yet, his statement was made in a calm tone of voice and measured pace which indicated space for his brother to make a choice: the three year old had the self-assurance and emotional regulation to firstly state his perspective, then wait for a response rather than needing immediate gratification. I am also so impressed by the forethought and critical thinking he demonstrated.
    This incident marked a huge step in demonstrating respect for himself, his brother and their home environment.

    His 5 year old brother, in turn, calmly complied despite initiating the disruptive behaviour. The brothers proceeded to enjoy their lunch as I tidied the kitchen nearby.

    After working only 2 months of 3 days per week with this family, disputes had generally shifted from explicit anger, intimidation, physical aggression, fearful distress and squawking to the example above.

    Example 2 —

    Time-in with a 6 year old who was ‘had fun’ by interferring with his sibling’s play and resorting to violence as a first method for solving disputes. (Socially and developmentally inappropriate)

    After explanations and appeals didn’t work, I implemented a 6 minute “time out” where he had to stay in his room each time he misbehaved – “if you don’t show control, it’s time to show control by staying in your room”. Nothing was taken except his freedom, the door was left open and we were all free to interact. He was free to ask for me to fetch things for him.

    If he left the room, I would pause my timer and ask him to come back — if he chose to come back (the first time) we would continue where we left off, if he didn’t then I’d reset the timer.
    I’d challenge the notion that hitting his sibling to get what he wanted was the best way, and to guide a sense of safety:
    “Hey mate, I’ve asked to you have time out because you chose to hit to get what you want, and hurting others not ok. Is just hitting and not listening the best thing to do? Really really?!! (with some humour, because all kids know the answer).
    Right now, I want you to show control to make up for not using it, and to grow your control muscles. You’re not doing what I want, so should I hit you?

    (Using ridulousness, humour and over-acting, if the child isn’t too afraid of the concept:)
    Are you saying I should smack you? A big smack? Then would you stop hurting people? Or would you smack me? Oh no… and then would I smack you? Would your brother smack you, and you smack me and I would smack you? Oh dear. Then would I cry? Would you cry? Would we all cry together… oh no. We would all be sad and angry together…? What else..?

    No, if I hit you, I would hurt your body and your feelings, and I love you too much. It’s not ok for me to hit you. I’m here to take care of everyone.

    Now, because I don’t want to hit you, I’d like you to stay in yoir room for 6 minutes. It’s not ok to hit or annoy your brother, because he said no. He didn’t like it. If you really want to fight, we can fight. Come on back to your room. We have six minutes of staying, and then we can choose something else or a bigger space to fight with lots of cushions.”

    Connection, rough housing, acknowledgement and acceptance. Clear focus and role-modelling of love, safety and self-discipline. Laughter and ridiculousness to ease perspective-taking philosophical exploration. While, in the end, gaining compliance and building child’s choice to act in line with my values/request.

    In my opinion, couple this with consistent coaching of how to give, take and ask nicely, and we either have happy, well-mannered children or strong grounds to see a specialist.

    In this case, I had a 4 hour care period in his home. When we first started rough-housing, he was having lots of fun yet also had a desire to hurt me and express a freedom to do what he wanted. I remained fairly non-judgemental as I felt an understanding of him, was able to deflect many attacks, and personally have a high pain threshold compared to what he was trying to do (he was still enjoying play, so didn’t REALLY want to hurt me much).

    In the last two hours of our four hour session together, the 6 year old had such gentle hands when play-attacking me and I didn’t need to send him to his room again. We all had so much fun roughhousing in the living room and playing animal couch cubbies.

    Would love feedback and ideas for further development.

    Lea says:

    There may be some confusion for some of the 50ish year old readers ….. what some of us refer to as ‘time out’ and have practised successfully for quite a long time is what is described in this article as ‘time in’. The practise of the meaning of ‘time out’ has perhaps changed over time …

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