Is time-out good parenting? An expert’s advice.

When disciplining children, many parents use time-out, choosing it as a “better” alternative to smacking. However, there is evidence that this parenting tool is significantly more complex than parents think and some experts even consider it a harmful practice. 


Time-out has been used in behavioral parenting programs since the 1960s. Shockingly, most people wouldn’t know that the technique was actually developed as a method of training laboratory animals and was later used to manage children’s behavior. There are two schools of thought on the technique. Some researchers contend that time-out is an effective way to manage children’s behavior if it is carried out correctly. Other researchers highlight that this technique focuses on controlling a child’s behavior through the withdrawal of love, which can have negative consequences. Given these conflicting recommendations, it’s important to look at time-out more critically by weighing up the research evidence on the conditions under which time-out is meant to work, its effectiveness and, most importantly, the implications for both parents and their children.


Experts who claim time-out is an effective method for parents caution that instigating time-out is a complex procedure.

Advocates of this method claim that, to be effective, time-out needs to be used with a range of other parenting strategies and time-out itself should involve a number of steps. A study by Morawska and Saunders, published in 2011, identified eight factors that need to be considered when implementing time-out. These included: warning the child; giving a reason to the child; deciding how it was to be carried out, where the child would be and for how long; evaluating the time-out area (to ensure it is less stimulating than the time-in area); determining the schedule; and, finally, monitoring the child and deciding when the child will be “released”. Further, they emphasized that “time-out needs to take place within the context of a warm, caring, supportive environment”.

According to the experts, managing time-out effectively requires training. In answer to concerns that time-out was being used without proper instruction, a more recent study carried out by a team of researchers (Drayton et al 2014) evaluated the guidance on the internet about the practice of using time-out that’s available as a free source of advice for parents. The researchers concluded that none of the pages was accurate and found instead they were incomplete, inaccurate and inconsistent, and they cautioned against pediatricians recommending parents use the internet as a source of information for time-out. 


Researchers concerned with time-out as a legitimate parenting practice highlight that it focuses on controlling a child’s behavior through the withdrawal of love. If a child misbehaves, he or she gets sent away … lovingly? It seems unlikely that this process will educate or motivate children to learn why and how to behave appropriately, because it focuses children’s attention on getting out of time-out now and ensuring that they avoid future banishment. Then there are the complications of carrying out the process. 

One of the aims of time-out is to give the child time to “think about their behavior”. At this point, we need to consider whether the child is motivated to reflect on their behavior on their own and to come up with better solutions to resolve their issues.

Further, we need to bear in mind that time-out is recommended for young children. We have to question whether young children are developmentally capable of reflecting on their own behavior and complex social interactions

Time-out, which is a punishment, forces the child to focus their attention on not being sent away and avoid the fear of feeling unwanted, and possibly even unloved. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Your child can’t see or feel your well-meaning intentions or your love when they’re banished to time-out by you. Instead, your child simply experiences you withdrawing. Being sent away is frightening for a child. Experts who caution against using time-out are concerned that a child can conclude, “I’m ‘bad’ and I can only be near Mum and Dad when I’m ‘good’.” Brain science also highlights that the anxiety and stress from being sent away cause a child to go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. In this stressful state of survival, children can’t learn. 

Children need to be in a state of calm for the part of the brain in which learning takes place to be working optimally. This means switching off their fight, flight or freeze response!


It’s important to highlight that the time-out described in this article is where the parent takes the child out of the activity against the child’s will. The child is sent to another room or to another part of the same room — but it’s not by choice. This forced exclusion is different from healthy time-out. Sometimes children and adults simply need time to themselves and so they choose to take time to be by themselves. This is healthy time-out.

However, this still leaves the question: If I don’t use time-out when parenting challenges arise, what are the alternatives?


Time-out is a discipline- and punishment-based model. An alternative is time-in, which is as part of an educational or life-skills-based model. 

With time-in, parents stay with their child, help them to calm down and then explain to their child why their behavior (hitting, stealing, screaming) is not acceptable. In this way, over time, your child will develop good values so that they can make healthy and safe future decisions, become a co-operative member of your family and eventually a good social citizen. 

Most things we learn in life, whether as a child or as an adult, take time. The time-in technique may take more than one attempt! But it will assist in stopping negative behavior your child is engaging in. Also acting as an aid to support them to learn and embody a better way to be in the world. 

In the short term, time-out may stop a behavior more quickly than time-in, but not always, as you have probably experienced if you have tried the technique. Developing new behaviors with time-in may be more time-consuming in the short term. However, the child is more likely to change their behavior through moral development rather than out of fear of repercussions. 

Time- in reduces stress for both parent and child. When the parent stays calm and responsive, this helps the child to be calm. It has the added benefit that parents are right there to help the child make better decisions. Time-in also helps overcome the challenges that started the problem in the first place. It enables parents to help their children learn to be safe as well as to support them to gain the knowledge and skills they need to navigate life successfully, without the need to discipline or punish them. Time-in can embody the benefits of both a relationship-based model and behavioral model of child development and parenting. 

Feel the difference when you experience your parental role as just a disciplinarian. In contrast to one of helping your children develop all the skills they need to navigate the world successfully. Time-in is a win-win.

Dr Rosina McAlpine, is a ToBeMe Early Learning Thought Leader. She is also an accredited parenting expert, renowned author and the creator of the Win Win Parenting programs.

The aforementioned blog is an extract from Dr Rosina’s work for Wellbeing Magazine.

The article in its entirety can be found here


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