Time out for toddlers – alternatives to time outs

Time outs for toddlers have been the “go-to” discipline for toddlers for years it seems like. But did you know that generally time outs for toddlers are ineffective?

Time outs for toddlers - why they are ineffective and 8 alternatives

I will admit, I used time outs with my older 2 kids. In a fit of rage after my kids would misbehave, I would send them to the time out, 1 minute per year of age. But as they got older and as I did the research myself, I realized that they weren’t effective. what I really was doing was sending them away to get out of my hair while I cleaned up the mess. Sure, when it was over I talked with them about why they were in the time out but 9 times out of 10, they didn’t have the “right answers.” And the next day, they were in a time out for the same reason.

If time outs were effective, we wouldn’t need to use them repeatedly for the same behavior!

Are time outs for toddlers more effective than hitting, yelling and threatening? Well, maybe. I guess it depends on the kids. But none of these discipline tactics will work all the time, every time. What will work most of the time is changing your expectations of your kids and working them through the tantrums and less favorable behaviors.

Toddlers and kids are meant to make mistakes. They aren’t built to stop and think “I shouldn’t do this because mom will put me in a time out and time outs are not fun.” They can’t control their impulses. They ARE, however, built to learn things and make you happy. So it’s our job to tell them what they need to do instead of the seemingly defiant behavior.

Why are time outs for toddlers ineffective?

  • You’re essentially pushing your child away. You’re sending them away from you when they need help the most. It is our job, as parents, to teach children how to make the right decisions and WHY they need to be making those decisions.
  • You’re leaving them to fend for themselves. By putting a toddler in time out, you’re basically telling them that they’re on their own. Fix your behavior, but I’m not going to show you how. You’re not there to help them.
  • Sending the wrong message about emotions. You’re telling them that when they have heavy emotions (tantrum, for example), they will be punished for it.
  • They’re simply not developmentally appropriate. Telling a child to go sit down by themselves and think about what they’ve done is a waste of everyone’s time. A toddler (or child, really) is not capable of this abstract idea. When you take them out and ask them if they know why they were there, most of the time their answer is “I don’t know,” because they don’t know.
  • Power struggle: Time outs for toddlers initiate a power struggle between the child and caregiver.

Children want and need attention. They live to make us happy. They 100% worship the ground we walk on. Putting a toddler in time out pushes them away from you and typically is done with anger and frustration from us.

Grab your FREE time out alternatives printable below!

What are some alternatives for time outs for toddlers?

  • Talking! I know this sounds like a big load of crap. Because I thought it sounded like a big load of crap when I started my own research. But it’s the dang truth. Use few words and words that they understand.
  • Correct them. If they’re standing on the couch and you say “if you stand on the couch one more time, you’re going in a time out,” that means little to nothing to a child. They forget it about 3 seconds after you say it. Try “Billy, feet on the floor. Come over here and build a tower with me that we can knock down together.” Tell them what they CAN do (feet on the floor) and give them an alternative activity that is equal to their current energy level (knocking down the tower to burn the same energy they need to when climbing on the couch.)
  • Let them cry. If it’s a tantrum they’re throwing (as toddlers do, which is developmentally appropriate), make sure they’re in a safe place and let them throw the tantrum. When they calm down, go to them and talk to them about what they were feeling. Younger kids may not be able to answer these questions but with some guidance from you, they’ll start to learn.
  • Time in. If they’re older (3 and up), encourage them to take some time to themselves. In their room, a quiet corner, play room. Some kids get overstimulated and this is what brings on the less than favorable behaviors and tantruming (that’s a word now). So a minute or 2 away on their own works wonders. But don’t offer it as a punishment. “Billy, do you need a second on your own?”
  • Prevention. Prevent the “poor” decisions by, again, giving them alternatives. Be with them when they’re playing (as much as you can) to be able to swoop in when you see it coming.
  • Have a calm down box. A box of activities that they can do when you sense them getting out of hand. Card games for toddlers, sensory bins, board games for toddlers.

Put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say you’re at work. There’s a rule at work that you can’t use blue ink pens. No one has told you this rule – they’re assuming you just know it. You have absolutely zero idea why it would even be a rule. So you use a blue pen at work. Your boss comes flying into your office and tells you that you can’t use blue ink pen – are you crazy?! They then sit you in a boring office, staring at a wall and tell you to sit there for some random amount of time. Wouldn’t you much rather they calmly come in and say “hey, I got this report you wrote but I wanted to let you know that we don’t use blue ink pens in this office. So I’m going to replace all your blue ink pens with black pens so we don’t have this problem. We have this rule in place because XYZ.” (I have absolutely no idea why you wouldn’t be able to use blue ink pen so just pretend there’s a valid reason).

Are there any other time out alternatives you use? Let me know below and be sure to grab you free printable!

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4 thoughts on “Time out for toddlers – alternatives to time outs

  1. Love this!! Thank you so much for writing this post and sharing this information and for giving real actionable advice!!
    As a parent coach, I recommend all of these approaches! Another thing we love is going to the ‘yes space’ when we notice our toddler starting to get wild. We go together and just keep playing in his area so he doesn’t have limits to test!

  2. I really like telling them what they can do instead of what they can’t. I feel like it really makes a connection. Thank you!

    1. You are very welcome, Michelle! Hope this helped!

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