Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org
Time-out is a popular technique for dealing with undesirable toddler behavior, but is it really best for the child? In Time Outs Are Hurting Your Child, doctors Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., and Daniel Siegel, M.D. tell us that the latest research suggests sitting alone in that chair is doing more harm than good.
When I learned that time-outs didn’t work for my highly sensitive boy almost 6 years ago, I was led to look for an alternative for correcting his behavior. I found that a calm down area was much more effective for my sensitive son, and it worked just as well with my non-HSC (highly sensitive child) too.
What is a calm down area for?
This is a place for a child to go either with the parent or willingly alone. It is not a punishment but a place to learn emotional intelligence followed by learning better behavior. What I’ve learned about children in my years of research is that their brains do not take information in when they are dysregulated (or very upset). During times of emotional upset, children are functioning from their lower brain (which controls the fight, flight, or freeze response) and need to calm down before they can access their higher brain (responsible for logical thought and reasoning). Therefore, the calm down area should be a soothing place for the child to engage their higher brains so they can then best learn the lesson we want to teach.
Wait, isn’t that a reward for misbehavior?
Think of it like this. When you get angry and are about to blow up at your child or spouse, do you take a few minutes to calm yourself first? You should. That ensures you are able to respond thoughtfully rather than react irresponsibly. When you take that time to breathe or repeat a mantra or go to the bathroom, you’re essentially going to your own calm down area, even if just in your mind. Is that a reward for your anger? No. Does taking that little break in the bathroom make you want to get angry more often? Of course not. No one likes feeling out of control. We all need to learn how to take time to calm our brains down so we don’t react, and it’s best to start learning that as young as possible.
What’s the difference? Don’t they learn to take that break in the time-out chair?
The difference is that the parent acts as an emotional coach in the calm down area. We talk through the emotions that the child is feeling and discuss ways to calm down and regulate our brains. A toddler isn’t able to process all of that alone in a chair. Furthermore, sitting with a nose in a corner doesn’t help most children calm down and often fuels the negative emotions. They may even feel rejected or isolated. Certainly, they aren’t thinking about what they will do better next time, and even if they can repeat why they just had to sit there for 4 minutes, did they really learn what triggered their strong emotions or how to handle them better? Knowing what not to do is not equal to knowing what to do.
What goes in the calm down area?
What you put in your calm down area is unique to your child. Find items that will suit them best. One of my children liked to draw or be read to and the other liked to pop balloons to calm down. I kept a box with several books, a glitter and water jar to shake, pencils and paper, rice for sensory play and balloons in our calm down area, along with a comfortable pillow to sit on.
How do you use the calm down area?


  • Mary Ann Newman Posted 21 April 2015 17:44

    Finally, an end to "time-outs". I agree they are bad for children. How much better to sit with child, talking and nurturing.

  • Anonymous Posted 21 April 2015 17:44

    This is why we have children that grow into adults that won't take responsibility for their behavior. Imagine if you gave your DOG a treat every time it peed on the floor.

  • Rebecca Posted 21 April 2015 17:47

    Actually, we are teaching them to be responsible in how they act on their emotions and teaching the important skill of calming down before they react to a situation – a skill that many adults lack, unfortunately. Perhaps if we'd have learned this important skill when we were children, we'd have a more peaceful world.

    It's not giving them a treat. It's giving them emotional intelligence. Once they are calm, TEACHING happens. We tell them what they did wrong. We tell them why it was wrong and what they can do better. If a consequence is necessary, it may given then. But all of this occurs AFTER the child is calm BECAUSE that's when they learn best.

    And children are not dogs, so that's not a great comparison to make your point with.

  • Lisa Bastian Posted 23 April 2015 16:23

    I love this concept!

  • Lisa Bastian Posted 23 April 2015 16:23

    I am very excited to try this! I agree with everything you said. Teaching our children to control & understand their emotions is much smarter!

  • Ruby V Posted 23 April 2015 16:23

    Love it!! Thank you so much!

  • mom2ijb Posted 23 April 2015 16:24

    At what age is this appropriate, please? My daughter will soon be three. How does this apply when not near the "zone"? We just returned from vacation that was fraught with toddler testing….

  • Katie V. Posted 2 June 2015 11:27

    I used to get locked in the bathroom for a time out from about three to seven years old. I remember seething in anger that no one was listening to me and I would scream the entire time. They wouldn't let me out until I was 'calm', which just meant I had to be quiet until the count of ten. I would come out so much angrier than when I went in, but I learned to repress it and not talk about it so I could get out of the bathroom. It has done me no good as an adult, and I am still dealing with the emotions I learned in that situation thirty years later. Children need help learning emotional regulation and I agree that this is a much better idea than any time out. It would be a reward if you gave a child a new toy every time she hit her sister. This is not that. This is offering a space to feel calm (with or without help) and eventually to communicate gently.

Comments are closed.