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Timely Tips for Time-Outs

By Judy Arnall

Tired of holding the bedroom door handle closed when your child is trying to leave during a time-out? Fed up with your child’s trashing his room during time-out? Frustrated because you can’t get your child to calm down and think about restitution during his time-out?

Perhaps it’s time to re-think the way a time-out is used. Some parents use a time-out for punishment, and it often erupts into a power struggle. Originally, a time-out consisted of removing the child from a positive situation. However, often the child is acting up or blowing up because of the negative emotions he’s feeling. The emotions are not generated from an environment of pleasantness — but rather, a negative situation is occurring.

For example, a child is fighting with a sibling and is feeling angry. He hits the brother because he is feeling angry and frustrated. Removal from a negative situation is what a child often needs, but he also needs help to calm down. So ideally, a time-out should not be a punishment but instead a calming-down strategy for an upset child. Many parents call this child directed time-out, a “time-in.”

Adults often take time-outs for themselves when they are angry and frustrated. They go for a walk, blow off steam at the racquetball court or just stay in their rooms and listen to a soothing piece of music. The time-out is a useful skill to teach your children, but the way that it is used is a big factor in achieving the results that you desire.

You want your children to think a time-out is a great idea, not something to be dreaded. The parent-directed time-out is used as a punishment and is not recommended. If you want a great way to calm down your children, focus them on their emotions, actions and restitution, and connect your parent-child relationship in the process, try the child-directed time-out.

Here are five differences between the two types:

Parent-directed time-out (not recommended)

What: Used as a punishment.

When: Send the child away for a certain number of minutes per year of age.

How: Give the child nothing to do and instruct the child to “think” about his actions. Often, the older child is really thinking about his anger, the unfairness of the situation and/or how to retaliate. The younger child is often confused and overwhelmed by his strong emotions and doesn’t understand why he is abandoned.

Who: Parent requires child to be isolated.

Where: Parent decides the location, such as an empty chair, stripped bedroom or stair step — usually a place with nothing to do and no distractions, in order to punish.

Child-directed time-out (Recommended)

What: Used as a calming strategy.

When: Suggest the child take a time-out from the situation, either physically or emotionally. Let the child decide when he’s calm enough to start problem-solving the issue.

How: Give the child tools to calm down that suit his learning style while he sorts out his feelings. The auditory learner needs soothing music. The visual learner might wish to watch an aquarium, video or draw a picture. The kinesthetic learner might benefit from hugging stuffed toys, having a parent rub his shoulders or hands or deep breathing practice.

Who: Ask the child if he wishes you or another adult to stay, comfort and talk with him. An extroverted child may need a sounding board, whereas an introverted child may need solitude.

Where: Child chooses the location such as a bedroom, special fort, going for a walk or even the basketball hoop.

More tips for success
Don’t get into a power struggle! Remember the benefit of parent time-outs for yourself to control your anger. Stepping back from a power struggle doesn’t mean the child “wins”; it means you are mature enough to take a self-imposed time-out and calm down. Isn’t that what you ultimately want to teach to your children?

The goal is to teach your child the appropriate ways to calm down when they are experiencing strong feelings rather than to punish your child for having those feelings and expressing them in not-so-appropriate ways. Don’t forget to come back later and problem-solve the original trigger, when both you and your child are calmer. For example, teach the child different ways to handle fights with his brother other then hitting, when he is calm, not distressed.

The best time to discuss the child-directed time-out with your child is not in the emotional heat of the moment. Do it during a neutral time, where you both are in good moods. Observe how your child usually calms himself and ask for his input. Welcome the connection in your relationship!

© Judy Arnall

Judy Arnall, BA, is a discipline expert and founder of Attachment Parenting Canada. She’s a parent educator and author of Attachment Discipline: How to Raise Caring, Responsible Children Without Spanking, Grounding, Time-Out and Other Punishments. Visit for further information.

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