6 Alternatives to Time-Out

cozy corner
Image via Katie Hurley

When behaviors escalate and parents feel frustrated, time-out is often a first course of action taken in an attempt to put an end to the behavior. In some ways, it makes sense. Kids and parents can become very frustrated and angry at times, and a break might help decrease the anger.

But time-out doesn’t always work. While it might give the caregiver a moment to take a breath and relax, it leaves many children stewing over the initial problem, thereby increasing the child’s anger, or it leaves a child feeling alone, overwhelmed with emotion, and/or anxious.

In fact, time-out can increase separation anxiety for kids who already struggle to separate from parents. Bottom line: Time-out doesn’t fit all temperaments.

If you really stop and think about it, time out can amount to a painful experience to an already sensitive child.  The message time out may send to young children is this:  You’ve done something terrible and you need to be alone, away from the people who aren’t doing terrible things.  That’s a lot of weight on little shoulders, if you ask me.

When you take a more positive approach to handling difficult parenting moments, you send a much gentler message—you send the message that even though the child made a bad choice, you still love him or her, and you’re there to help him or her learn something from it.

Image via iStock
Image via iStock

Look for the cause:

While it’s frustrating to stop and think about the cause when your child isn’t listening, and it feels like everything is falling apart, finding the trigger often helps put an end to the behavior.

Take a few minutes to assess the situation. If your child is too upset to discuss it, ask yes or no questions. Don’t forget to consider hunger, exhaustion, and overstimulation as potential triggers.  



Image via iStock
Image via iStock

Time in:

Take a five-minute break together. Play some calming music, read a story, or just cuddle. Remind your child that your love is unconditional, even when mistakes are made.



Image via iStock
Image via iStock

Problem solve together:

When kids become overly emotional, it’s difficult for them to think rationally. While some dig in their heels, others completely fall apart.  They need help.

Use relaxation breathing to help calm your child, and then come up with solutions together.  



Image via iStock
Image via iStock

Give two choices:

Put your child back in the driver’s seat by giving him or her some control over the situation. Provide two safe and acceptable alternatives to the behavior, and let your child choose. Remain calm and keep your voice tone firm but even-tempered when you intervene. Your stress will increase your child’s stress during these moments, so proceed with caution.


Image via Flickr/
Image via Flickr/Kiddies Korner

Create a relaxation zone:

Create a comfort zone somewhere in your home where your child can go if he or she needs a break without feeling shunned. If you have a cozy corner set up, your child will likely choose to retreat there when the going gets tough.

Get your kids involved in creating the relaxation zone. Have them choose books, stuffed animals, notebooks and markers, puzzles, and other items that provide stress relief.


Image via Flickr/
Image via Flickr/Ana Fukase

Draw it out:

Drawing is a great way to help kids get their feelings out. Sit with your child, and have them color their feelings or have them draw what happened just before frustration set in. Talk with child about the drawing and what could be done to avoid making poor choices the next time.


Bottom line: Kids need to know that they are still loved and supported, even when they mess up. Avoid sarcasm. Avoid the urge to yell.  Take a positive approach to negative behaviors, and watch the negative behaviors disappear.

{ MORE: What is Normal Toddler Behavior? }

What have you found works best for your child? 

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6 Alternatives to Time-Out

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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  1. Timothy says:

    I am sooooooooo looking forward to letting my child be a child this go round

  2. Amy says:

    I laughed and laughed and laughed when I read this article. My child (a girl) is 2.5 years old and NOTHING works with her. I will admit that sometimes (but only sometimes) she responds to hugs and directing her towards something else and that time outs are not the best option for her but she has meltdown after meltdown and the MOST embarrassing temper tantrums in public ALL THE TIME. She smacks me in the face, pulls my hair, tries to bite me, has bit her 8 year old brother 3 times and once drew blood. I have been taking her away from the situation that makes her mad, I have talked to her, I have held her and loved her and NOTHING WORKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am at my wits end with this child….if its not what she wants when she wants it then all hell breaks loose. I have tried everything, I am seriously considering taking her to see a psychologist to see if there is something mental with her that we need to deal with. Plus she can’t sleep through the night for months. We have tried shorter naps, no naps, melatonin. Nothing works. Her big brother is the complete opposite of her, very well behaved, sleeps through the night, talked well at a young age, never violent or mean. Maybe all two year olds are like this and we were just spoiled with my first, but I wish there was a magic pill to make this one act less violent and at least let us sleep through the night. So if you are out and see a poor Mom struggling with a little two year old girl please don’t judge it’s probably me and I am trying the best that I can with a little girl who won’t respond to anything I try.

    • Paula says:

      To Amys comment first of all it is not good comparing your children. Each one is different so saying oh my other child was this this and that. does not help. Secondly your daughter is in the terrible twos stage where she tests you to see how far she can go. Apparently you did not get the first hints that she was testing you because if she is biting her sibling until drawing blood, something did go wrong. You said she is 2.5 years old, it is too early to figure out if she has any mental issues. The earliest you can take the child to get evaluated is 4 years of age. I do not think you want to take your child to a psychologist so she can get diagnoses for something that in reality she does not have. Think about it very well before you do that cause it can change your daughters life for ever and sometimes for the worst. You just have to keep trying with your child, That is what a parent is doing the trial and error. good luck and have patience.


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