Is time-out outdated? Experts weigh in on the discipline strategy and its effect on kids

Is time-out outdated? Experts warn the discipline method may make kids feel alone and fearful. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Is time-out outdated? Experts warn the discipline method may make kids feel alone and fearful. (Photo: Getty Creative) (LSOphoto via Getty Images)

For many adults there are more childhood memories than they care to admit surrounding time spent in time-out. That dreaded time-out chair in the corner of the room was a place no one ever wanted to be, leaving deep-rooted memories of being punished by grown-ups for negative behaviors.

While it may be tough to remember what landed us in time-out, adults often carry memories of the shame felt as a kid while separated from family for committing a behavioral no-no, leaving many parents today asking — is time-out outdated?

Is it OK to use time-outs for kids?

Lisa Howe, a social worker and certified peaceful parenting coach, says it's time parents remove this method of handling problem behaviors from their parenting toolboxes for good.

"Time-outs are an outdated idea left over from previous generations that lacked an understanding of impulse control, emotional regulation and child brain development," says the San Diego, Calif. mom.

"There's been much research done which tells us children lack the ability to pause to consider their actions and cannot regulate their emotions on their own," Howe tells Yahoo Life. "We know children require co-regulation (a calming presence to help them settle down when upset,) behavior modeling, emotional coaching and discipline when they're struggling. They aren't giving us a hard time, they're having a hard time."

The idea of acknowledging kids' feelings and helping them cope with those emotions rather than disciplining them for perceived bad behaviors is strongly tied to gentle parenting — a parenting style many moms and dads are choosing in recent years over discipline strategies that focus on punishment. Gentle parenting focuses closely on child development and uses positive reinforcement to tackle problem behaviors through calm and respectful discipline, which would not include things like the use of a time-out chair.

Lisa Howe and her daughter. (Photo: Lisa Howe)
Lisa Howe and her daughter. (Photo: Lisa Howe)

"Children don't go to a time-out chair and think about their actions as we suppose they do," Howe explains. "They can't do that alone: If they were able to sort through why they did what they did or what to do differently next time, they wouldn't have acted their feelings out in whatever led the adult to give them a time-out."

Time-out and the parent-child relationship

Some experts even feel that time-outs may damage the relationship between child and parent.

Tejal Patel, a mindfulness and meditation expert for kids and parents, is a mom of three who says time-outs can impact kids' mental health, leaving young children feeling scared and alone.

"Often, time-outs lead to more power struggles and fractured parent-child relationships," says Patel. "Studies show that time-outs do not actually help children learn to regulate their emotions or help them learn moral values like right from wrong."

"[Time-out] lowers their developing sense of self and trust of the world," the New Jersey mom continues, "and many kids feel abandoned, rejected, frightened and confused afterwards — which is the total opposite of what we want."

Respectful discipline methods

While some experts agree time-outs are outdated, many believe a more modern take on the practice can be beneficial when done correctly using positive reinforcement.

Julie Ann Ensomo, a mom from Singapore, shares stories about motherhood on her blog, Adaptable Mama, a site she hopes will one day be able to help her own daughter if she decides to become a mom.

In Ensomo's house, time-out is a no-no.

"I've never put my daughter in a time-out as I find the concept ridiculous," Ensomo shares. "I respect my child and treat her accordingly."

Instead of a traditional time-out, Ensomo suggests talking to children with love and respect, ensuring they learn what they did wrong and how to correct it the next time around.

"When my daughter has been naughty, I talk to her about it," Ensomo says. "I stoop down so she can look at me directly, I make sure I have her attention and then I explain to her what she did wrong."

"I tell her the possible consequences if she does it again and then I give her some tips on how to avoid doing it in the future," Ensomo adds, sharing the most important part of the conversation is the follow-up; when she asks her child if she understands what they've talked about and what she has learned from the discussion.

Try a "time-in" instead

Patel suggests similar practices in place of the traditional time-out, one of which is a time-out alternative known as a "time-in."

"Time-ins are a positive alternative where the child that is having a big emotion is kindly invited to sit in their calm down corner — with you — to express their feelings and eventually cool down." Patel explains.

Once a child's emotions have cooled off, the teachable moment is talked about: During the time-in, the first item on the agenda is always helping kids name the emotion, feel the emotion and show empathy, then supporting them as they talk through their feelings.

As for creating a calm-down corner, Patel suggests the area be a place an upset child can go to release their emotions and cool down using age-appropriate calm down strategies. She notes the calm-down corner is not a punishment or a place a child is banished to: instead it's a place where they go freely to play and get comfortable with the surroundings even when they aren't experiencing big emotions.

Howe acknowledges that gentle parenting strategies are not always easy for parents who may be feeling some big emotions themselves in the heat of the toddler-meltdown moment.

"Remind yourself [your child's tantrum] is not an emergency," she offers. "Co-regulate with your child and provide them comfort while they calm down. Then and only then, you can review what happened, problem solve and discipline — which means to guide and to teach, not punish."

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