Time outs: Harmful or helpful?

Can time outs do more harm than good? According to new research, parents should seek an alternative discipline method.

time-outs Photo: iStockphoto

The first time my son Isaac had a full-blown temper tantrum, he was 16 months old. We were playing with his Hot Wheels set, having races across the kitchen floor. One of the races saw my car beating his car and, instead of just having a re-match like we usually would, he got so angry that he threw the little metal cars across the room. But it didn't stop there. He started screaming and throwing more cars in all directions. Dumbstuck, I carried him up to his bedroom and closed the door. I was too shocked to yell, I don't believe in spanking and I'd never had to deal with a tantrum before. I'd never given him a time out before, but he was so completely bonkers that I didn't know how else to discipline him.

The time out didn't improve the situation. He screamed and pounded on the door, begging to be let out. It made me wonder: As a mom that never let her kids "cry it out" at bedtime, why was I using that method during the day?

I'd like to say that was the first and last time I'd put either of my kids in a time out, but it wasn't. The time out for me is an easy way out since I'm able to physically pick them up, immediately putting an end to the bad behaviour that earned them a few minutes of solitary confinement in their rooms. I never liked it as a discipline method, but I really didn't see any other alternative. I still don't like time outs. I hate hearing my kids get upset and I don't like that I have to let them cool off alone.

Fascinating new research from Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, published recently in their book No Drama Discipline, only reinforces my discomfort with time outs, but with a surprising twist—they can actually change your child's brain.


Through the course of researching their book, Siegel and Bryson discovered that the brain imaging patterns of kids being disciplined with a time out resembles that of children who experience physical pain.

"Children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment parenting demonstrate that, particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us. But when children lose emotional control, parents often put them in their room or by themselves in the 'naughty chair,' meaning that in this moment of emotional distress they have to suffer alone," they wrote in Time magazine's Ideas section.

From my own experiences of putting my kids in time outs, they often get more upset than they were before the incident. "Parents may think that time outs cause children to calm down and reflect on their behaviour. But instead, time outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they've done," Siegel and Bryson write.

Now, I wish I could say that I've discovered a revolutionary way to get my kids to settle down and behave that doesn't include spanking or time outs, but I haven't. Many parenting experts like Siegel and Bryson suggest "time ins" as an alternative to time outs, where parents sit and talk through a difficult situation with their kids. But if you've ever struggled to keep your cool when your kids are losing their marbles (perhaps both literally and figuratively), the last thing on your mind is the desire to have a heart-to-heart with a screaming toddler.


So yes, my kids still get put in time outs but, more often than not, it's me that needs the time out to reassess the reasons behind my kids' tantrums. So, while Siegel and Bryson's findings provide interesting food for thought, I think I'll stick to my time outs for now.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

This article was originally published on Sep 26, 2014

Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners

I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.