Facebook Pixel

Parenting 101: Why Time-outs Don’t Work

By HERWriter
Rate This
Parenting 101: Why Timeouts Just Don’t Work David Castillo Dominici/PhotoSpin

The time-out is the backbone of many parents’ disciplinary arsenal. Time-outs are seen as simple and effective methods of giving you and the child a break from whatever stress or temper tantrum is going on.

But, as we will discover, timeouts could be negatively affecting your child in ways you never imagined.

Satisfying a Child’s Most Innate Need

Children need to feel connected and close to those who take care of them. This is called “attachment” and, as psychologists have studied this, it has become clear how much this governs what children and adults do. We thrive when we feel secure in our connections with those we love. (1)

Time-outs prey upon the fear of separation. Parents actually create separation anxiety. (3) “[T]he anxiety created by chronically threatening a child with separation damages their core sense of security and connection,” says family therapist Susan Stiffelman.

Children don’t like being separated from us and from whatever activity is going on. The hope is that by removing them from the situation and giving the child time to calm down, they will emerge behaving in a way that is more acceptable and garners them positive attention, rather than negative.

Parenting Wisdom: Deciphering Children’s Behavior

Psychologist and family therapist Todd Sarner of Transformative Parenting tells us that when children act out it’s an indication that something is wrong, even though the child may not be able to tell us what that is.

“Usually they are feeling disconnected or struggling with some difficult feelings. Using separation-based discipline like time-outs tells a child that when he is in need, we will answer his pleas for connection with the exact opposite of what he is asking for.” (1)

Time-outs may appear to work initially because the child fears being separated and will behave properly to avoid it. What can happen over time, though, is children become desensitized to this fear. This need for connection has gone unmet before, has been denied him before, so he eventually shuts down those feelings.

Time-outs lose their power. Children will also seek to get this need fulfilled through other things and by other people.

Family therapist Susan Stiffelman also warns parents that when a parent sends a child away because they can’t handle the child’s misbehavior, the parent effectively tells the child that they have the power to render the parent incompetent and helpless. (3) Children should not have that kind of power.

The Alternative to Time-outs: Positive Time-ins

Time-outs are effective and necessary when mom or dad needs time to calm down. When we do use them with our children, we need to be very aware of what our children are feeling and thinking.

In her book "Positive Time-Out," Jane Nelsen recommends time-outs (also called positive time-ins) :

1) Preserve a child’s sense of dignity and respect.
Doing this will turn time-outs into an effective and encouraging experience rather than a humiliating and innately painful one. Discipline doesn’t have to inflict pain to work.

2) Encourage a child.
“Misbehaving children are discouraged and need encouragement so they won’t feel the need to misbehave.” (2) The shame and humiliation that comes from the traditional implementation of time-outs discourages children more and incites them to misbehave. (2)

Todd Sarner presents another point.

3) Connect with a child.
“One of the most important goals of parenting is to communicate the message to our children that even if what they are doing is not OK, our relationship with them is OK.” (1) Positive timeouts include connecting with our children afterwards, talking to them about the feelings they had that led behavior that led to the time-out, and what behaviors would be more acceptable.

It’s okay and normal for them to have these feelings, but acting out the way they did is not. Following-up with a hug and a talk and reconnecting with them is vital to maintaining that sense of security we talked about above.

“[C]hildren do better when they feel better—not when they are discouraged about themselves. Therefore, the number one criterion for positive time out is that it be used to help children feel better, not to make them feel worse.” (2)


1) The Trouble with Time-Outs. Sarner, Todd. Transformative Parenting. Web. Accessed: Sept 29, 2014.

2) Book Excerpt from Positive Time Out. Nelsen, Jane. Positive Discipline. Web. Accessed: Sept 29, 2014.

3) Positive Discipline: Why time-outs don’t work. Stiffelman, Susan. SheKnows.com. Web. Accessed: Sept 29, 2014.

Reviewed September 30, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a CommentComments

There are no comments yet. Be the first one and get the conversation started!

Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you agree to EmpowHER's terms of service and privacy policy

We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



Get Email Updates

Parenting Guide

Have a question? We're here to help. Ask the Community.


Health Newsletter

Receive the latest and greatest in women's health and wellness from EmpowHER - for free!