Menu

Time-out alternatives: How disciplining with empathy can help

How to avoid adding to the confusion and anger of the moment. 

Time-out alternatives: How disciplining with empathy can help

As long as there have been children, there have been parents seeking effective discipline methods. Thankfully, the go-to methods have largely evolved from corporal punishment to the more gentle, thoughtful instructions for the child to “go to time-out.” So, why is it that parents with the best of intentions can still find themselves melting down in the wake of a time-out?


My experience working with Healthy Families America has shown me that time-outs can make matters worse for everyone if handled poorly. But with some simple adjustments, they can serve their purposes—leading to happier kids and parents.

So, next time you find yourself in a battle over time-out, consider this process.

1. Calm first

It may sound counterintuitive to offer a child who is grabbing a toy or even taking a whack at another child a caring touch in response, but it’s important. The behavior the child is exhibiting is not acceptable—but it is also not calculated or malicious. Rather, grabbing or hitting is sometimes the only tool the child has at hand to express how upset they are about something already.

Putting that already unhappy and distressed child in time-out before they have calmed down after the initial upset may only make them more confused and angry. In other words, your child may end up in full-on survival mode, totally unable to access the parts of the brain that can reason—and completely unable to process any “use your words not your hands” lessons you are trying to impart.

After the child is calm, you can take him or her aside and offer that lesson, not as punitive but rather as a way to help them understand the consequences of their behavior.

2. Offer a vocabulary lesson in the process

College essays and crossword puzzles notwithstanding, there are some more basic reasons why young children need vocabulary lessons from an early age. Having words to attach to the many new feelings they are having will help them learn to sort out those feelings and, down the line, to attach them to appropriate responses.

So, start the conversation early: “I know that was very frustrating when you wanted that truck and you couldn’t have it” or “I see you are very disappointed that your block tower fell down.”

Big words, yes. But for children, these are very big feelings. Giving them language validates those feelings. It helps them to understand them and to react appropriately as they grow.

3. Don’t mistake distraction for success

Children are always looking for ways to learn and grow. I have seen a 2-year-old in time-out spend a lovely couple of minutes tying her shoelaces to the chair. Sure, she stopped crying or hitting, or whatever behavior landed her there in the first place—but she did not learn anything about controlling her behavior from the exercise. (Although she may have learned some neat lessons about shoelaces.) Who really believes that a 2-year-old is “thinking about” their misbehavior in their two minutes of fame?

A successful time-out doesn’t end with your toddler telling you what went wrong and what she could do better because she thought about it. Rather, it ends with a calmer little one you can talk to about appropriate and healthy ways to express her emotions. By being present when your toddler is most stressed will also create a sense of trust that you will there for her whenever she is stressed throughout multiple stages of growing up, including those difficult teenage years.

4. Set the stage for the future

The tricky part of time-out with young children is that sometimes it looks as if it is really doing the trick. The child stops crying and appears calm and ready to absorb a lesson like “use your words, not your hands.” Sadly, the real lesson that child is absorbing is that “when I need you most, you are going to put me in a chair by myself.” That makes it all the less likely that child will turn to you for help and support next time he or she is feeling traumatized, afraid, in need of help calming down and dealing with a situation.

Without your consistent help, that child will continue to struggle to learn how to “regulate,” that is, to calm the storm of emotions and react appropriately to any situation. Helping your child learn to regulate and calm down doesn’t happen in isolation, yet it does last for a lifetime. Helping your child develop the capacity for self-calming by providing him with words to describe emotions (“If you can name it, you can tame it”), letting him know you are present and available, that you understand his strong feelings—yet do not approve of the particular behavior is the greatest gift a parent can give. Your child will know that they can always come to you, no matter what.

5. If necessary, consider giving yourself a time-out instead

Take a moment when the child is regulated, calm and busy to think about your own reaction. Did your fists clench for a second there? Did you grab that toy away from the child just a little more forcefully than you should have? In the wild whirlwind that is every single moment of parenting a young child, we adults often need a little help regulating ourselves.

If possible, walk away and spend a few minutes by yourself. If you can’t, try to get the child interested in something else for a few minutes while you calm your breathing and try to assess what is really going on with you and how—maybe not this minute, maybe not today, but soon—you can get the help you need.

Remember, if in the heat of the moment you forget and find yourself in another battle over time-out, it’s ok. Take a deep breath. You and your little one are learning together.

Join Motherly

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

Talking to kids can come so easily. They have thoughts about everything and stories for miles. They see the world in a completely different light, and could ask enough questions to fill an afternoon.

But sometimes finding the right words for talking to kids can be really, really challenging. When choosing how to respond to the marker on the wall, or the seemingly unending why-can't-I battle, or in simply keeping healthy communication open with kids who don't want to talk, the words don't seem to come so easily.

Keep reading Show less
Learn + Play