The Overthinking Parent Thinks about Time-Outs

That’s me – the overthinking parent. My wife’s the same way. So tonight when we tried a time out for the first time, we were so wracked with uncertainty and doubt that it went kind of badly. She hit the new kitten with a drum stick after being corrected for her behaviour 100 times before, and refused to say sorry to him. My wife tossed an empty threat into the void – “say sorry to Albus or you’ll go to a time-out.” We have never done a time out. We didn’t have a game plan. But Avery has time outs at daycare, so she knew it was something she didn’t want. Nevertheless, she laid there on the floor and said “no!” defiantly.

So I improvised. The threat had been made, and I felt like I needed to follow through. I picked her up and took her to the front hall. I told her she was going in a time out until she calmed down. I closed the baby gate that separates the front hall from the rest of the house. I walked away. The screaming was ear shattering.

I started to panic in the other room after about a minute had passed and the crying didn’t subside. So I went to her and explained again why she was there. I reminded her of the misbehaviour and told her she was there until she calmed down. I tried to get her to take a deep breath. My wife and I were both standing with her at this point. We started to give each other glances that said “what do we do if she never calms down?” Then I worried that Avery had noticed our glances and we had made it worse.

She started to make up excuses to get out, like needing to go potty or blow her nose. She wiped snot all over her face through her screams. We were probably oozing uncertainty. We were coming and going, trying to help her calm down and then leaving when she would hit us in a rage.

After 5 minutes she still wasn’t calming down, so we changed the requirement for getting out of time out – she didn’t have to calm down while alone in the corner, but she at least had to say sorry to the cat for hitting him. Our consistency was slipping.

At this point I was feeling like I caused the whole meltdown. When I first hauled her off to the time out, she was just pouting, face down on the floor, for being told no. The hitting had stopped instantly when we told her to stop. If I’d just been more patient with her and waited another minute for her to say sorry to the cat, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The consequence had become so far removed from the original offending behaviour. It was the time out that caused the misbehaviour to escalate. I felt guilty for imposing a disciplinary measure that I wasn’t 100% on board with, and that I didn’t really know how to execute.

Eventually, she said sorry. It took about 7 minutes, but it felt like half an hour. The sorry was empty – which is all we could expect from a 2 year old who can’t fully process empathy yet, and who was apologizing for something that happened a long time ago, in toddler time.

After my wife took her to bed I spent a long time scouring parenting resources on the internet for time-out advice. I picked apart every aspect of how our first, unplanned time-out experience went, and I’ve made a mental list for how we’ll attempt it the next time. I’m still not convinced that it’s a form of discipline that’s right for Avery, and certainly not one to overuse, but since she gets it at daycare and my wife is inclined to try it, I sure as hell am going to overthink it until we have a solid plan.

17 thoughts on “The Overthinking Parent Thinks about Time-Outs

  1. Oh wow can I relate to the overthinking! When we started time outs, I was totally winging it, but it’s evolved into something that works for us. I’m sure you’ll find your way soon! We do one minute for each year of age, so 3 minutes now. She has to sit alone in her room for those 3 minutes. At the end, one of us (whichever is calmer in the moment) will sit down with her for hugs and cuddles and we talk about what happened, why she needed to have a time out and what she needs to do better in the future. At preschool, they have a time out chair called the “bad decision chair.” It totally cracks me up when she talks about it.

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  2. I think I’ll have to write on this topic myself. We don’t do time outs. In fact it’s one of our biggest parenting “things”, and almost no-one we know agrees with our choice not to do time outs. Rather we do time-ins. Where after he does something wrong we sit with him, have him look us in our eyes and we explain why the behaviour(s) is not allowed and what he’s expected to do to rectify it (usually he has to apologise). We don’t time it, it’s just as long as it takes for him to calm down and address his behaviour – usually a minute or two. Sometimes more.
    This type of parenting is strongly encouraged in the adoption world, particularly for children who were adopted as older kids who may have very real abandonment fear (i.e. they have literally been taken away or sent away from parents / caregivers and very likely have significant fears of having it happen again). It’s essentially a form of attachment parenting to encourage bonding as well. While attachment and abandonment fears have not been part of our lives yet, probably in large part because Little MPB became part of our family moments after he was born, it is very important to us that we never send him away as a punishment. We feel incredibly strongly about the fact we will never do anything that could make him think he’s not welcome or we’d give him back.
    And thankfully at this point, our time-ins seem to be working. Usually after a few minutes he can articulate what he did wrong and say he’s sorry.

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    • I should add, I am firm believer on doing what’s right for your family and your child with disciple, just as I am about feeding, sleeping, etc. I do not negatively judge anyone who does time outs, and I’m sure if it weren’t for all the adoption specific parenting techniques that we learned, I too would be in the midst of learning how to do time outs.

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      • I feel the same way about time outs for Avery. They don’t sit right with me, and I can almost always get the result I’m looking for from a time-in, as you described it. But this is a parenting compromise my wife and I are making (she’s much more in favour of time outs, probably because she sees how well they work for our friend’s kids). That’s probably why I am so stuck in overthinking it!!

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  3. We do a combination of time-outs and time-ins. Our son, whom we adopted at age 9 and is now 11, has some really severe and violent reactions to being told no or being told he needs to do something, like chores.

    If he’s becoming violent and aggressive, we have to to tell him to “go take a break” until he calms down. If we try to talk to him during that time, he will try to hit me (not my wife, just me). He usually chooses to go to his room where he will throw a ball against the wall until he feels he has more control over himself. Sometimes, he will walk up and down the street in front of our house. Afterwards, we talk to him once he is calm. We have him apologize, but they’re generally hollow. If a child doesn’t learn empathy and bonding by age 3, the chances of them learning empathy at all the rest of their lives is close to zero. We have him do it anyway.

    Sometimes, his anger doesn’t get out of control and we’re able to skip the “breaks” and just talk to him straight out. It really just depends on the situation.

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  4. Well, time out is my favourite method of punishment. I get them to sit on the naughty chair and face the fall. And the rule of thumb, 1 minute for every year. I switch on the timer and just walk out.

    I believe you are doing perfectly well for your family and yes, it is normal to feel a bit of doubt when you are doing something new. One tip , even if you are unsure, look like the boss! The minute you kiddo knows you are on shaky grounds, tables turn in an instant and she becomes the boss , which is what Avery did.

    Congratulations, you have one super smart child :))


    • And I must add, I dont send them away to some other part of the house where they cannot access us . Its in the same room where we are just facing the wall, and we ask them to think over what they did. And the most important thing, after the timer is done, I walk over to them, hug them and ask, do you know why mom put you in your naughty corner? And I explain rarely why , beacuse 99% of the times, they know why! And I tell them, I love them and I dont like for them to sit on the naughty corner but rather close to me. It works, and they rarely sit on the naughty corner for the same reasona gain.

      Second thing, vary your punishments.. dont always do time outs.. sometimes when either is v angry, I get them to do sit ups or do jumping jacks. using the same punishment all the time makes it lose its value.

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      • Yeah I was beating myself up after for being so uncertain – she could TOTALLY smell my fear. I’ve seen this form of discipline work so well for friends’ kids, and I’m sure if we approach it with a solid plan and she understands our time out protocol, it’ll go much better next time.


  5. Punishing the little human that we love so much is seriously hard. When we see them so upset it’s almost impossible to not cave and let them win. For your first time of trialing a new method for at home, you did well. I know it likely didn’t feel like it, but no parent is a pro at punishment right off the bat. We have to feel things out and see what works for our own kid. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have tried so hard to stick with a punishment and I slowly start to crack because I can’t handle the giant tears rolling down my son’s face. The moment he catches on to me weakening, he knows he’s won. It’s a work in progress for me to find the strength to actually push through because I know that he responds positively to certain punishments when he misbehaves. I’ll keep on trying. We typically do the time-ins as well but it’s always my husband who takes him away because with me he will just keep screaming, crying and not listening. So that is a method that clearly works for my husband, but doesn’t work for me. So I have to find my own methods with H, which sucks for keeping consistency with our parenting as a team. It’s all trial and error these days.

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  6. Oh boy, this was our night last night, but I just about avoided it entirely…ignoring or distracting. Hitting things with a wooden dowel, repeatedly shrieking at the top of her lungs for no reason, and whacking my wife with a spoon on the hand. It was actually a rare evening of bad behavior. I had NO IDEA what to do, other than to tell her no and stop. I haven’t considered time outs or time ins. We can’t really close her off into any area of our house, but I’ve threatened to go to another room myself because I didn’t want to be around certain behavior. Discipline, man…I feel so unprepared for this!

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  7. It’s hard switching from redirecting to disciplining as they get older! My only advice is to stick to it in the moment (even if you decide to never choose that particular thing to make your stand on again), most of my problems in the beginning came from waffling and inconsistency.

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  8. Ask the school what their exact protocol is, then consider how you MIGHT adapt it to other environments. You do need to find the right answer for your family and this child. I believe you three will work this out.
    Otherwise, you could have a child grow up and respond like an infamous judge in the states just did when being a rich privileged white male with no self-responsibility, empathy, or self control had an embarrassment he didn’t like ~~ after all, he thought boys like him had a right to do whatever they wished to others when 17. (There is no way you will raise a child like that!)

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  9. It’s so difficult isn’t it! I can see and relate to how torn you feel about the timeout. Before I had my daughter I thought it was the way forward – a miracle to sort out all the issues. And then after having her I just couldn’t imagine using it. I read a lot about it and my gut feeling seemed to be right. I’d strongly recommend ‘Toddler calm’ if you haven’t read it yet.
    Your daughter is 2, isn’t she? She doesn’t have a developed empathy and her brain is not reasoning in the way an adult (or an older child’s one) brain would. Serving her timeout is scaring her, which floods the brain with anger and stress hormones. She can’t deal with it on her own as these emotions are too powerful for such a young child. Expecting her to calm down on her own and apology is expecting too much. I think your perception of the timeout causing the meltdown is spot on. I’d rely on your intuition here as I believe it’s right.
    Timeout teaches the child that love is conditional – if they don’t behave in a required way, the parent will withdraw the love and attention. It’s forcing them to use extrinsic motivation for their actions rather than a belief that they should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
    And regarding apology- I wouldn’t bother with it. She’s so young and as I said, the empathy is not there yet. Apology will be treated as an additional punishment, she can’t see how her action may have upset the cat in this case.
    I don’t have a miracle advice, I don’t think you are looking for it anyways – I’d say trust your instinct and read about the effects of timeout on the child’s brain and behaviour. I’m much closer to attachment/ natural parenting myself and time-out is a total no no for me. Xx

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