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Early Child Development

7 Alternatives to a Time-Out

Sometimes a lighter touch is the way to get the behavior that you want

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When faced with a full-scale three-nager meltdown, time-outs can seem like a fast way to stop bad behavior. While this break may help everyone let off some steam, time-outs often lock parents and kids into a power struggle that doesn't leave anyone feeling better. If time-outs aren't working for you, try these expert alternatives. 

1. Take a time out yourself. If you're feeling incredibly frustrated, tell your child you need to calm down and walk away. “It's especially helpful if you share with your child what you did—for instance, say, ‘I splashed cold water on my face, and I feel a lot better!’’ suggests Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. “This teaches kids that feelings can be strong, but we can handle them.”

2. Change the scene. To break the tension, head toward a quieter place with less stimulation, says Dr. Cohen. “The goal is to soothe overloaded emotions and help you both relax.”

3. Call in reinforcements. Sometimes you can’t leave your kid or change the scene. So talk to a photo or a picture on the wall. “Say, ‘Oh, Grandma, I don't know what to do! ARGH! I feel like screaming, and I wish you were here!’” says Dr. Cohen. “You get your child’s attention by being funny and you take a break from the intensity of the moment,” he explains.

4. Point out what you see. Instead of putting kiddos on the defensive by asking why they did something, describe their actions, says Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and a mom of two. “You can say, ‘Wow! Your brother was pretty upset just now. You must have been really angry to push him down.’ Keep restating what your child tells you.”

5. Be understanding, but set clear limits. Putting their feelings into words helps kids feel acknowledged. Then you can set your limit, says Dr. Markham. “I see why you did that. And you know what, no matter how you feel, you can't hurt your brother like that. It's not okay." 

6. Be forceful, not harsh. Reconnection, not punishment, is your end goal. “My shorthand for the goal is ‘I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re okay,” notes Dr. Cohen. Make sure your expectations for your child's behavior are age-appropriate—kids under three, for example, often aren't able to explain their actions.

7. Practice prevention. Kids often act out when they feel disconnected from us, says Dr. Markham. If you can, try to carve out a bit of one-on-one time where your kiddo gets to call the shots (within reason) and you give him your undivided attention. It may even help both of you avoid a time-out later.