As I type this upstairs in my office, the most fitting situation is unfolding downstairs. My husband, on little girl duty, is fielding a truly atrocious toddler tantrum. I am almost certain my 2-year-old has thrown herself down on the ground and is now kicking to punctuate her screaming. Before this is over, it is likely she will wallop someone over the head, tug a poor cat’s tail in frustration, or lob something across the room with unfiltered aggression (thankfully, she lacks aim and muscle).
As delightful as my youngest daughter is—and she is pure joy 95 percent of the time—the further she grows into year two, the bigger her feelings get as well. And with every big, unruly emotion, there seems to be a less than desirable physical component (e.g., the above-mentioned tail-tugging). All this to say that my husband and I are racking our brains for the best, most effective method to help this kid learn to manage her feelings, without hurting anyone in the process.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “The answer is a gentle time-out!” the thought has certainly crossed my mind. But it wasn’t until I spoke with two toddler experts that I decided to change course. From Deena Margolin, a child therapist and the cofounder of Big Little Feelings, and Devon Kuntzman, a toddler parenting expert and founder of Transforming Toddlerhood, I learned that instead of curbing bad behaviors, time-outs can actually make them worse.
What We Think Time-Outs Accomplish
When parents opt for the time-out option, we often do so with the thought that little kids will find a way to calm themselves and think about their actions. I mean, that makes sense; we remove a child from the environment and put them in a safe, quiet space to practice self-reflection. Only it turns out, that’s not what toddlers need in these moments at all.
“What we label as ‘bad,’ ‘rude,’ or ‘manipulative’ behavior in toddlers is actually them being emotionally and physically dysregulated because they are so overwhelmed and having a hard time coping,” Kuntzman said. “Toddlers don’t have the brain development or life experience to self-regulate. They need adults to support them in the process.”
What Time-Outs Actually Accomplish
From our toddlers’ perspective, what happens during a time-out is what Margolin coined a “love withdrawal.” Just when our little ones need us most, we think we’re doing the proper thing by letting them be.
Margolin encouraged parents to think about it this way: let’s say you are having an upsetting day. Your heart is crushed or you’re in the throes of frustration, and you turn to your partner for support. But instead of listening to you or offering any measure of comfort, they turn on their heels and walk away. Cue the confusion and hurt!
“Time-outs are generally used as punishment for ‘being bad,’ and they cut kids off from the very support they need to come back to their behavioral and emotional equilibrium—you,” Kuntzman said. “They decrease a child’s capacity to learn effective, positive coping skills and ignore the needs and feelings that are causing the behavior in the first place.”
Margolin cautioned that time-outs can even affect the trusting bond you have with your little one, dredging up feelings of resentment, fear, and anxiety. She explained that this form of punishment doesn’t give kids the thinking space we hope it will—even if parents reflect with their toddlers afterward. There’s no growth or change happening during time-outs and, as a result, no way for parents to curb the behavior that kicked off this process in the first place.
What’s more, by shutting children down when their emotions are at their biggest, we not only miss the opportunity to shepherd kids through the hard stuff—but we also teach them, as Kutzman said, ‘that when they have a hard time, no one is there to help them.’
What To Do Instead
Before I share any further, I want to take a quick pause and say that I’m writing all of this without any shred of judgment. Parenting is a tough gig, and we are all doing the best we can—learning, growing, and changing course as we go. I have 100 percent used time-outs for both of my children, and they are lovely little people who are very much attached to me. But I am always hoping to do better, and that’s why I love the method both Kuntzman and Margolin shared: a time-in.
During a time-in, Kuntzman encouraged parents to stay with their little ones, allowing them to release emotions without labeling them as “bad” or “wrong.” Margolin added that, in these moments, your focus should be on encouraging kids to connect their feelings with behaviors and social contexts.
“[Your script] might sound something like this: ‘I could see you were feeling so upset,’” Margolin said. “‘Your hands were in tight fists, and your mouth was not smiling. You wanted your toy back because you weren’t done with it. Let’s have a re-do and ask for the toy back.’”
When the moment has passed and your child is calm again, then it’s time for a discussion, Kuntzman explained. At that point, she advised parents help kids in learning a new coping skill and setting boundaries and limits for your little one to follow next time.
At the end of the day, Margolin stressed that each discipline measure we take must teach toddlers three things: 1. Their feelings are OK, no matter how big they are, 2. Certain behaviors (like walloping someone over the head or tugging a pet’s tail) are not OK, and 3. This is what an acceptable expression of that feeling looks like.