Tips for Parenting with Compassion #2:Time-out Doesn’t Work

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Using time-out with your child who is behaving in a way you don’t like doesn’t work.  Some parents may think it works in that it might stop the behavior in the immediate short-term.  I’ve tried it – because it is easy, reinforced by our culture, takes little effort on my part to think of a win-win solution for myself and my child, and it doesn’t require me to get a handle on my own emotions.

But using isolation, fear, and punishment don’t work for nurturing our children to be compassionate, empathetic and confident kiddos…and most often they don’t even stop the behavior!

Think about it – the same society (ours) that uses time-out for children also believes that the punitive punishment of criminals (ex. isolation holes) results in reformed adults – hence our “correctional system.”  Punishment, fear, and isolation don’t reform adults and they do nothing to curb our children’s behavior in a positive way, much less teach them about cooperation and compassion.  (Side note – of all the studies that have been done about reducing recidivism, the conclusion is the same: the number one way of reforming criminals – higher education).

It takes effort to be a conscious, mindful parent.  Mostly because, sadly, it is counter cultural, and because we have to be aware of and take responsibility for our own reactions and emotions (how hard is it to get a grip on our anger in the moment of being ignited by a screaming child?!).  It’s easier to jump into controller mode and try to dominate the situation by becoming more rigid, using anger and threats.

Other solutions?  The world of Positive Discipline offers some great suggestions (for more info., check out Jane Nelsen’s blog):

Offer a Hug

Yes, that’s right.  When your child acts out just ask, “Oh, do you want a hug?”  This does not condone their behavior.  It seeks first to connect to your child when emotions are running high.  Touch also regrounds a child who is all over the place and out of control.  When things cool down, then you can talk about what is appropriate and what isn’t.

Show Them What You Want

If you want them to stop hitting (or whining, throwing, etc.), tell them what you DO want and SHOW them how to do it.  Ex. Taylor hits the cat.  Get down on Taylor’s level, look him in the eyes, and say, “We use gentle hands.”  Then show him immediately what gentle hands are.

Mirror/Validate Your Child’s Feelings

“I see you are upset.”  “I see you really want that cookie.”  “I see that you really need to run around and it’s hard for you to sit.”

Walk Away

If you and your child are having a difficult time at home, YOU walk away.  Don’t send your child away.  You say, “I’m really upset right now and I need to cool down.”  Go into the other room. Go to the bathroom.  Guess what this teaches?  Taking responsibility for self-regulation and appropriate self-care.  Funny addition – just lay down on the ground right where you are and start making funny grunting sounds or breathing deeply.  This is a true release for you and it’ll crack up your child while defusing the situation.

Lots of Time-in

Throughout the day, PLAY with your child.  Be silly.  Children learn best through play.  Give them your full, undivided attention in short bits throughout the day.


Give two choices.  Children respond better to choices than to commands.  They instinctively know when they are trying to be controlled.  “Would you like to eat a pear or an apple?”  “Do you want mom to help you or do you want to do it yourself?”  “You can take a bath being happy or sad.”


“YES, you can go outside after you finish your dinner.”  “Of course you can call your friend when you finish your homework.”

Curious Questions

Instead of telling your child what to do, ask things like “Where would you like to put your coat and shoes so you can find them when you want to go outside?”  “What would be a polite way of asking me?”

Ask Once Then Act

Use less words and more actions.  Ask for their cooperation, give choices, and then just act.  Ex. Ella won’t pick up her toys at the end of the day.  You tried to give choices, you asked curious questions (“Where do you think would be a good idea to put your dolls so you can find them tomorrow?”), and you asked her instead of telling her to do it.  She still refuses.  Go over to her and say, “This is how we clean up.”  And start doing it with her.  Be playful and silly (use a funny voice or facial expression).

Give Warnings

“In three minutes, it will be time to leave.”  “Ok, let’s do it two more times (hit the ball, play with the toy, go down the slide) and then it’s time to go.”

Natural Consequences

Allow children to experience the consequences of their behaviors.  Child makes a mess, help them to use their own hands to clean it up. Child breaks a toy, he throws it away or helps repair it.  You can even ask, “What do you think will happen if we don’t…” (not as a threat but as a way of thinking about cause and effect).

Intentional Ignoring

“I can listen to you when you talk nicely to me.”  Then walk away.  Don’t say anything else. Or just ignoring when they are trying to get a rise out of you or using unacceptable behavior. (Obviously, don’t ignore a behavior that is hurting someone or the child).

Positive Reinforcement

Catch them in the act of doing something great. “That was really kind of you to share your snack with Jennifer.”  Name the specific behavior rather than saying, “Great job!” or “You are so great!”

Teaching Empathy

Ask, “How do you think Joseph felt when you helped him?”  “How do you think Connor felt when you yelled at him?”  Then ask a curious question, “What would be a way to help him feel better?”

Instilling Self-pride

“How do you feel about yourself after sharing your snack with grandpa?”

Identifying Feelings

Help children label and identify feelings, “It sounds like you are…sad, mad, happy, excited.  What do you think?”  Children are instinctively in tune with their bodies.  “How does your heart feel as you help out your younger sister?” Or “Where does it hurt on your body when you are angry (yelling, fighting, crying)?”

Time Away

Experts use different terms for this, but no matter what you call it, here’s the idea.  Thomas is whining or throwing things at someone’s house.  You take his hand and you walk him to another space away from the action.  You say, “We’ll wait here until you’ve finished whining.”  Then you non-emotionally just wait with him even while he throws a tantrum.  You don’t leave him, scold him, or lecture him.  When he seems finished, you say, “Are you finished?  Do you feel better?  Are you ready to go back and play?” And then go back – no lecturing.  Let it go. Some parent experts also suggest having a “comfort corner” or special place where children can go to let off steam, be by themselves, and regroup.

I could go on and on.  But I thought I’d throw out some practical tips that we’ve learned and tried to use as parents and those that I have seen to be effectively used by my clients.  Though I wrote these with younger children in mind, they can easily be adjusted for older children, even teenagers!

This IS hard work!  And I, too, often resort to what is easier or requires less of me because I am tired (hey, I’m 39 weeks prego!), I’m nervous around another parent, or because of some feeling I’m experiencing that is unrelated to the moment.  But I have noticed that when I become mindful of these practices and do them, everyone is happier!

Here’s to really hoping that we use less punitive ways of correcting behaviors and instead see the value in mainstreaming these positive discipline techniques that further attachment, enhance self-esteem, and teach compassion – for one’s self and others!  Let’s encourage each other.  And then maybe we can have an impact on how our schools discipline our children!

Here are a few other posts that relate to this topic:

Wild Thing, I Think I Love You

What Motivates Our Children Part 1

What Motivates Our Children Part 2

What’s in a Name

Feed the Meter

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Krista
    Mar 04, 2010 @ 14:36:38

    This article was great. I was especially helped with the part, “You can take a bath being happy or sad.” I’m pretty good about remembering to give him options, but it has been the things that he really doesn’t want to do no matter what that have frustrated me. Things like a bath and washing his hair and cutting nails, ohhhhh the nails! I struggle with remembering that I *always* have some kind of choice so sometimes it is also hard for me to identify his choices for him. (by the way, I just “fed the meter” for probably only 30 seconds instead of saying, oh I’m almost finished and will be right there, it felt great and I totally get how that will help when the times come up when I really do need him to just wait for me.)


  2. Kyia W.
    Mar 04, 2010 @ 16:37:47

    Lisa, Lisa, Lisa!!! You are sooo amazing! This advice just sings to my soul! I have to send this to my hubby and start implementing it right away. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.


  3. barefootlisa
    Mar 05, 2010 @ 01:23:22

    Aren’t these great ones?! Often hard to do if I am unfocused/not centered. But when I have been really mindful of my own needs and taking care of myself, as well as breathing and letting things go while not getting wrapped up in emotion, I have noticed how everything is just so much lighter and we are all happier. These can become second nature, though often I default to some of my old habits. I love the one, too, of “You can do such and such being happy or sad.” It ok’s a kiddos emotions while also being firm that this is what we are doing now.


  4. Jane Nelsen
    Aug 22, 2010 @ 23:52:05

    Lisa, what a wonderful post–so helpful and encouraging. I’m glad someone pointed it out to me. There is now a link to your blog on the Positive Discipline Network at in the General PD group. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips.


  5. Denise
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 12:11:30

    What a great “gem”. I love the fact that you addressed societal pressures and how uncomfortable it is to take a different parenting road. I too, have tried time outs and come to the same conclusion.


    • barefootlisa
      Aug 23, 2010 @ 17:36:59

      Hi Denise, thanks for the feedback. It’s funny how some things like “time out” are so “ingrained”…or a part of our culture….Brian and I are pretty mindful and conscientious parents and when our son turned 2 or so, it was weird how quickly we could’ve jumped to time out. We tried it a few times. A. always got more upset. So we began to focus on all the things I listed in this post. I have noticed that things always go better 100% of the time when I FIRST get a grip on my emotions and choose to respond vs. react. Isn’t that hard?! I don’t always do it. Just the other day I yelled at A. — YELLED. I couldn’t believe it. I apologized. I love the line of Eckhardt Tolle: “we are never angry for the reason we think we are.” Anyhow…now at 3, A. understands the idea of “chill out time” or “time to himself” — I can encourage him to go there but I don’t force. I often go in to ‘chill out time’! I never make him sit by himself alone in another room w/ the door closed — I love Jane Nelsen’s idea that isolation never works! Ohhh the journey of parenting! Blessings to you Denise. Lisa


  6. Michele
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 17:37:49

    I felt like I was reading a condensed version of my semester guidance and discipline course. If more parents and teachers had you understanding there wouldn’t be such a need for the class, or at least they’d come in with the core disposition needed to make behavioral changes. I find it interesting that adults want the children in their care to “change their behavior” when in order for that to happen it often means the adult must look into the mirror and determine what elements of their own behavior they need to change before the child’s behavior will change. When we discuss in class students are often shocked to hear they need to change before the children will change. I’m glad to hear another voice of reason out there. I hope many others read and head your comments. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and beliefs with others.


    • barefootlisa
      Aug 23, 2010 @ 18:48:37

      Hi Michele, what a great point you bring up and said so well — we as parents/teachers/etc need to change OUR behavior first! Sooooo much ‘harder’ than just getting upset with a kiddo! I’ll have to write a post about that! Your feedback is lovely – thank you. I will write more soon about kiddos! Blessings, Lisa


  7. npn2010
    Dec 06, 2010 @ 14:27:06

    Thank you for such concise, mindful alternatives to time-outs. We don’t do TO’s either, and it’s nice to have a list to refer back to occasionally. Bookmarking and sharing!!


  8. Dionna @ Code Name: Mama
    Dec 06, 2010 @ 14:28:25

    p.s. I have NO idea why I was signed in as “npn2010” – hubby must have been messing around on my computer. This comment is mine:

    Thank you for such concise, mindful alternatives to time-outs. We don’t do TO’s either, and it’s nice to have a list to refer back to occasionally. Bookmarking and sharing!!


  9. Trackback: Tips for Parenting with Compassion #5: What Motivates our Children? Part 2 « Gems of Delight
  10. Yomero Soy
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 13:06:07

    Isn’t time away just a variation of time-out?


  11. barefootlisa
    Aug 26, 2012 @ 15:48:33

    (i also replied to you via email) …good question! It’s really all in how it is done. Time away, time-out, regroup time…call it what you want – the distinction is this — it’s not used as punishment, it’s not used to isolate the child. It’s about giving the child space to regroup, usually alongside the adult. It’d go something like this: whether child led or child is too overwhelmed to decide himself….parent goes with child. “I’ll stay with you until you feel better.” It’s also best for the CHILD to create a space for him/herself that’d they can use and go to — a comfy corner, a safe space — different folks call it different things. It’s a safe space for a kiddo to go. Check out and also hand in hand parenting — specifically “Stay listening”. Let me know if you have more questions..


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Copyright. 2013. All rights reserved. No portion of any post may be copied without written permission from the author. The advice offered herein does not constitute a substitute for professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice and intervention. The self-help contents are solely the opinion of the blogger and should not be considered as a form of therapy, advice, direction and/or diagnosis or treatment of any kind: medical, spiritual, mental, or other. If expert advice or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.

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