Making Time-Outs Positive

January 20, 2011 at 8:28 pm (Positive Discipline)


In positive discipline, time-outs have an important and effective role. They are not used as a “thinking tool” or a punitive reaction to an inappropriate action; rather, they are used in a positive, proactive way, much like those taken in sports games. A time-out is a chance to pause, regroup, and collect ourselves (children and parents).  Time-outs are effective when they are about feeling better. When they are used non-punitively, time-outs teach acceptance and management of strong emotions and are a very effective discipline tool.

When emotions are running high, we need time to calm down and feel better so that we can “improve our game.” Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time Out, advocates, “Children do better when they feel better.” Here are some elements in making time-outs positive experiences:

Talk about feelings.
At a time when no one is currently distressed, talk to your child about moments when he’s been really upset. Let him know that everyone gets angry, sad, and frustrated sometimes and feeling these ways is okay.   Make sure your child knows that feelings are always okay.  But some emotions sure don’t feel pleasant, and it helps to know what to do then.

Designate a feel-good spot.
Ask your child’s input on where the two of you could create a “feel good” place. It might be in her room or it might be on the couch in the living room. To some children, going into a bedroom might seem too isolating and would prefer to be able to see a parent, while other children might choose their room because it can keep out younger siblings. Whether it is a bedroom, bathroom, or a spot in the kitchen, allow your child to choose an area that will be designated as her place to regroup and calm down. Have her create a name for this special spot.


Create a comfort basket.
Find a basket and fill it with items that will help soothe your upset child. Certified Positive Discipline Associate Glenda Montgomery advocates the addition of such a “comfort basket” in feel-good spots. “If a child has any special toy or stuffed animal that he likes to hold when he’s upset, definitely add it to the comfort basket.” Blankets, books, and music are all excellent items to put in comfort baskets, as are lumps of clay to pound, exercise bands to stretch, and squishy balls to squeeze. Older children may like to keep a journal or sketchbook in their basket, or even a bottle of bubble bath to use. If you’re using a large area or a whole room as the feel-good spot, you could also include bigger items such as a punching bag or trampoline. The idea is to fill the area with items to help your child relieve stress and begin to calm down. Some children benefit from a physical outlet, while others prefer emotional outlets.


Ask preferences.
When your child gets emotionally overwhelmed and upset, and it’s time to put the feel-good spot to use, ask if she would like to go by herself or if she’d like you to come too. Children have different preferences for this; some kids may feel “banished” if they are expected to go alone, and would feel more secure if you’re there supporting them, while others need to be left alone to decompress. It is important to respect their preferences, and understand that these may change over the years.

Deborah Thompson, a mother of three and and an administrator of an online positive discipline discussion forum, has been using positive discipline for 11 years and finds that she is able to adapt the positive time-out techniques to each of her children in various situations. She says, “I have used the car, a bathroom, even an out-of-the-way spot in the grocery store when I’ve needed to take a cooling-down moment with my child.” She also says that the most important element of positive time outs is the ability to focus on reconnection. “Once my children have had some time to cool off, I always make sure I reconnect with them afterwards.” That may be in the form of a loving, wordless hug, an empathic conversation, or a cooperative activity like playing a board game or cooking together. It’s a gesture that tells your child, “You were mad, and that’s OK. I love you no matter how you feel.”

Teaching children to calm down after being in a highly aroused emotional state begins at birth. Positive Discipline trainer and author Arlene Raphael states, “Whenever a parent picks up a crying baby with the intent to help calm her, she is experiencing a positive time out.”  Holding and comforting an upset child stimulates calm-inducing brain chemicals that help regulate emotions.  As a child grows, they can become a more proactive participant in deciding how a time-out will look and feel.  And parents can ensure that time-outs are truly in their child’s best interest if they ask for input, work together to understand everyone’s needs, remain flexible, and keep in mind the big picture; that in positive discipline, a time-out is just a way of helping a child feel better so he can do better.


  1. Jane Nelsen said,

    Kelly, Great article. Can you post it on so even more people can benefit. 🙂 Jane Nelsen

  2. Stephanie B. Cornais said,

    Another awesome post! I love the idea of the idea of a comfort basket. When I told one of my friends that idea, she laughed and said she would have to put her boobs in her son’s comfort basket!

    Anyway, the same friend and I are both stressing about our children’s “hitting” stage. My daughter is 14 months and her son is 18 months. They both hit each other and other children. He likes to pull on my daughters shirt and pull her down, tackle her or pull her hair. Alot of time he is just trying to give her a hug and he just so big and doesn’t realize his own strength kind of thing.

    We are both doing lots of redirection, and saying gentle, softly, etc and showing how to touch gently. I also add, a demonstration of hugs or kisses as an alternative.

    We both aren’t seeing much success and even though we know its a phase, we feel like we can’t go out in public because they are acting like such little terrors!

    Is there anything else we can do?

    Thank you!!
    Steph 🙂

    • Kelly said,

      Yes this is a hard age! The most important thing to know about kids in this stage is they they have NO self control. They act purely on impulse and are simply not physically/ developmentally capable of it. At all.

      Continue doing the redirection, talking about gentle touches, etc. you mentioned, and I would add three other tools to the list: prevention, prevention, and prevention! With my own kids, I had to be right with them ALL the time so that I could foresee & prevent altercations. For a while…not forever, of course, but until I saw a shift in their interactions with each other.

      It helps your own frustration level if you don’t have any expectations about behavior. Don’t expect them to “get it”. I would just plan on being there *all the time* to step in and redirect for a while. Positive parenting is understanding kids’ developmental limitations and responding with said understanding.

  3. Jennifer said,

    This is great. I realize I sort of did this when my kids were little by comforting them during “time outs” or sometimes offering a stuffed animal which might be lying around. I remember a friend telling me my time out wasn’t working because my child was now humming and enjoying his quiet time! Not sure what she was hoping for as the end result.

    Reading your article I was thinking this would also be a good technique for stressed out adults, frustrated parents, irritated managers, harassed customer service workers etc. Some of us, whose parents did not have the benefit of your wisdom, have not necessarily learned how to regulate our own emotions or comfort ourselves. Some of us have tantrums, resort to violence, or just stuff it away and become anxious or depressed. Think I might need to create a comforting decompression space and perhaps put more effort into the break room at work.

  4. Raising a Toddler: 3 Basic Tools to Have in Your Parenting Toolbox | Parenting From Scratch said,

    […] positive discipline tool as long as they are implemented in a non-punitive way. Here’s how: “How to Make Timeouts Positive.” It is important that children understand their feelings are normal and that mom and dad will help […]

  5. Stacie said,

    What a great way to think of time outs! Can’t wait to try the comfort basket…

  6. What Does a Time-In Really Look Like? | Parenting From Scratch said,

    […] A positive time-out is a chance to pause, regroup, and collect ourselves (children and parents).  Time-outs are effective when they are about feeling better. How to Make Time Outs Positive […]

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