Why time-out isn't working

Your child is misbehaving and it’s really starting to push your buttons.

How do you respond?

Straight to time-out.

Do not pass go, do not collect your £200?

You wouldn’t be alone. It’s widely accepted that time-out is the supernanny approved, sensible and positive way to dish out consequences.

After all, it’s not smacking, right?

Problem is; that’s a pretty low bar.

Many parents can agree that hitting or shouting at a child is unacceptable.  But time-out? No big deal.   

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The idea of time-out as a punishment or the threat isn’t new. It's been used in our justice systems for hundreds of years. While we’ve moved away from death sentences and eye for an eye mentality, the use of time-out persists as our preferred form of punishment.

Because it hits a person where it hurts.

It removes them from the people they care about most. 

We value being able to make our own choices and have our voice heard.

We long to be a part of a family in which we are loved and cared for.

It’s no coincidence that our prisons are full of people who’ve been deprived of these basic human needs.

It’s easy to see why forms of time-out are so prevalent across our prisons, schools or homes. It appeals to our sense of justice.  It makes us feel in control of an otherwise upsetting or challenging situation.

Punishment is meted out and order is restored.

There is, however, a fundamental flaw in the premise of using time-out. It’s based on the simple assumption that the consequence is grave enough to teach the child not to repeat the offending behaviour. 

So far, so logical. However it’s this adherence to the rational which leads to time-out becoming unstuck.

It’s a fragile attempt to apply logic to the dark and mysterious drivers of emotions and behaviours.

Because implicit in that assumption is the fatally flawed idea that a child would be able to make these significant behaviour changes on their own.

The ministry of justice for the UK published a report in April 2017 stating that 44.1% of prisoners released from custody re-offend.

This rises to 59.3% for prisoners who had original sentences of less than 12 months.

Not exactly a resounding success. 

Because enforcing punishment without teaching and restorative opportunity leaves the offender in exactly the same situation once the punishment ends.

Still lacking the skills to manage the emotions or the support to make more positive choices.

I understand that this isn’t a simple issue. There is a valid argument for removing dangerous individuals from the population at large. Recent data shows that violent crimes account for around 40% of the male prison population (UK Prison Population Statistics December 2016).

But as we’ve seen in the re-offending data for the other 60% of prisoners, particularly the ones who have committed minor offences and received shorter sentences, prison doesn't seem to be effective.

Now I know some of you are reading this and thinking,

Seriously, she’s comparing the time-out step to prison?

Yep. Because the fundamental idea is the same.

That with enough punishment a person will learn to change their behaviour.

I have no idea what your child’s re-offending rate is but I’d be willing to bet that if behaviour is frequently challenging a couple of time-outs haven’t made the slightest difference.

Behaviour is communication without words.

Because time-out doesn’t reach the root cause of the misbehaviour. It doesn’t teach new skills, increase confidence or boost emotional resilience. In fact, it leaves the door wide open for repeated failure.

We know that children, especially younger ones can't just simply calm down. 

It involves the separation of parent and child at the exact moment when a child needs his parent the most. He’s left to manage his uncomfortable and overwhelming feelings by himself.

In his enforced reflection time he is filled with impotent rage, shame and terror that the terrible thing he did has led to the removal of the thing he values most in this world; his parents love.

No young child has ever returned from time-out having truly reflected on his actions.

It isn’t possible for a child to truly reflect without some adult guidance. The brain equipment isn’t there – in times of high emotion children rely on the adults around them to assist them in the process. 

Even when your child comes back and appears to be sorry, promising not to do it again.

Because whilst their intention is true at that moment, the threat of time-out won’t be enough to stop them seeing red with their little brother again two hours later.

That's not to say that it can't be helpful to remove a child from a challenging situation. Sometimes children need you to save them from themselves.

The problem is leaving them to manage these feelings on their own. 

So what can you do instead?

Be proactive

Kids who have their emotional cup refilled often are less likely to act out in the first place.

You can read all about refilling the emotional cup in our Eguide - Managing Challenging and Attention Seeking Behaviour. Part of our FREE members only library. 

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Short practical E-guides on behaviour issues.

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Stop whatever you're doing and give your child your attention. What is the message they are really trying to send?

Remember that behaviour is communication and sometimes children just don't have the skills to convey their complicated emotions.


Once they've calmed down help them to develop their empathy for their little brother. Talk about strategies for managing those big feelings of rage when they come.

Help them to manage their guilt by making amends rather than leaving them to feel powerless shame.


Here's the real challenge for us as parents; expect to have to provide this kind of support over and over again. 

Just because your child behaves that way again doesn't mean that you're getting it wrong.

It probably means that the behaviour is developmentally appropriate so while you should manage it positively you also have to have realistic expectations about what your child is capable of.

Human brains are wired to learn from repeated experience.

You wouldn't expect them to learn how to read after teaching them their letters so why is their behaviour any different?

It means that they are learning to interact with the world in a new way, and this means practice, mistakes and repeated efforts on your part. 

You're sowing the seeds of resiliance, emotional literacy and empathy. You might not get to see these flowers bloom straight away but rest assured this hard work now is not wasted. 

It isn't easy

Yes, it’s harder.

Yes, it takes longer.

Yes, it requires that you manage your own feelings of frustration about the situation.

But that seems like a small price to pay for helping your child to develop their own moral compass that will guide them even in the times when you aren’t present.

So let’s raise the bar. For everyone.