Question: My 2 year old—who’s been sweet and sociable until now—is starting to do things she knows we don’t want her to do, like throwing food at the table and hitting other people. I’ve heard different things about toddlers timeouts. Some experts and parents say they’re the best way to respond to bad behaviour, others say toddlers timeouts just make things worse. Are toddlers timeouts a good idea?
Answer: Most parents of today realize that physical punishments like spanking are too harsh for little kids. Many parents are also aware that emotional punishments like shaming or shouting have unfortunate unintended consequences.
And you’re right that some experts are recommending toddlers timeouts. Timeouts have the advantage of appearing sensible, getting the child’s attention without violence. They also do a good job of giving parents and child some breathing space, a chance to calm down. So, what’s wrong with toddlers’ timeouts?
Toddlers—especially sociable ones—experience timeouts as punishment. A timeout, like any other punishment—is humiliating, and makes a person feel worse about herself.
- The shame of a timeout (a punishment inflicted by a much larger person) will either lead to your child feeling like a bad person, or incite a need to rebel, neither of which is desirable. When a child does something wrong, she was probably not feeling very good about herself in the first place, and the isolation will confirm that negative self-image.
- Banishing a child triggers her fears of abandonment, which are powerful at this age. This is especially problematic if both parents are working and leaving her with other people every day.
- Toddlers timeouts give a message that happy feelings are the only acceptable feelings, that you only love your child and want her around when she’s ‘good.’ They communicate that you’re not interested in her authentic self, a self that includes messy, troubled, angry feelings.
- Toddlers timeouts create an adversarial atmosphere. Instead of welcoming bad behaviour as an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving, you’re sending your child out to solve the problem of settling herself down all by herself.
The best time to teach your daughter to deal with the emotions that lead to bad behaviour is before the meltdown begins. That means watching for warning signs, and giving her a ‘time-in’ before she has a chance to do something she knows is forbidden. Give her a snack—meltdowns can mean she’s hungry—snuggle with her, sing a song together, read a book with her. Do what you can to let her know you’re there and won’t abandon her in this moment of need.
When everything’s good in her world, help her choose a place for ‘time-ins.’ This is a quiet corner she can take herself to if she’s feeling overwhelmed and wants a bit of quiet time. A place she chooses to be, and is not banished to.
If things do escalate, you’re right not to give in to your daughter’s demands when she’s behaving badly. However, it’s not a time for punishment or banishment. It’s a moment to offer your reassurance and strength.
You can ask her if she wants to go to her quiet corner—a special place where she can sit with a favourite book, animal, and pillow. If she feels in charge of choosing the timeout, it’s not humiliating. In fact, choosing to go into her quiet corner can help her learn about taking responsibility for managing her feelings.
Timeouts aren’t always a bad idea. A parent who’s losing control of her temper can happily give herself a timeout. She can count to ten, take a few deep breaths, close her eyes, repeat an affirmation she’s memorized, attune to how much she loves her child—do something that removes herself for a few minutes from the heightened emotions and exhaustion that accompany parenting a toddler.
For more on why toddlers timeouts are more harmful than helpful:
For some thoughts on what to do instead of toddlers timeouts: