Common mistakes parents make when giving their child a time-out – and how to fix them

Don't use time-outs as a punishment, parenting experts say,. Patrick Foto / Getty Images

Time-outs are a popular tool parents turn to when a child is acting out, but some would argue that it’s not as effective a tool as one would like.

But is the tool actually ineffective, or have you been doing time-outs all wrong this whole time?

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As it turns out, it’s both, according to parenting experts.

“Time-outs became popular as it was a better choice than spanking a child,” parenting expert Julie Romanowski of Miss Behaviour explains. “However, even though that may be a better choice, it still rarely corrects the child’s behaviour.”

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Time-outs that send a child away for a certain allotted time as a means to discipline or punish negative behaviour, she says, may have harmful consequences and can have a damaging impact on a child’s emotional development, self-esteem and self-worth.

The old way of doing time-outs, she adds, is not an effective parenting tool these days due to the stress levels and anxiety in children as they require a different strategy that promotes connections and self-regulation.

That’s why parenting expert Gail Bell of Parenting Power suggests adopting a new way to do time-outs — she calls it “positive time-outs.”

Rather than sending a child away to deal with a tantrum alone, this strategy allows for children to work through the emotions without sending the message that it’s wrong to have those feelings. Time-outs, she says, should let children know that issue is not having bad feelings, but expressing them in an appropriate way,

“What we’re simply looking for as parents is for the child to have a space to calm down,” she says. “But kids don’t get that, and if parents are using that as a form of punishment kids will react, and how they react will escalate.”

In order for positive time-outs to work out, there are a few common mistakes parents should avoid making in order to make the strategy work as effectively as possible.

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First, don’t force them into a time-out in the moment, Bell says.

“They will react,” she says. “Can you imagine someone telling us at work, ‘That’s it, go away and calm down?’ So take the time to set up expectations with kids before — telling them what’s OK and what’s not OK — but that certain behaviour like hitting mom or dad is not OK.”

Next, be consistent in how you roll out these time-outs. So if your child acts out in the mall and you let it slide, but if they’re punished when they act out at home, that isn’t a good strategy, Bell says.

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Also, model the behaviour you’re teaching the child. So if you find yourself in a position in which your emotions are escalating, remove yourself from the situation and calm yourself down.

“Trying to teach them in the moment isn’t going to work,” Bell warns. “Parents may have the best intentions to send their child to their room to calm down, but the child has never heard of doing that before or they may perceive it as a punishment.”

Keep in mind this is just one strategy, Bell says, and not every kid will respond to it in the same way, but the principals can be applied to other strategies.

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If that strategy doesn’t work try Romanowski suggestions.

According to Romanowski, parent shouldn’t leave their child alone when the time-out is happening. This is ineffective, she says, because it further disconnects parents and child when the child is in distress when it’s that connection they’re requiring.

“Parents can stay connected to their child in times of distress or difficulty by staying neutral and providing support,” she says.

Don’t send a child into a time-out because of a misunderstanding. This severs the chance for children to have their voices heard and be supported.

“It is helpful to allow the child to explain as much as possible,” Romanowski says. “Parents can validate their child’s feelings, desires and requests without judgment or blame, even though this doesn’t necessarily mean the child is getting what they want but rather allows them to feel heard.”

Lastly, take the opportunity to help guide the child’s behaviour and build their skills to cope when a time-out is looming. This will only help them (and you) when future situations arise.


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