Discipline with Empathy Instead of "Time Outs"

Children don't need to spend time in "time outs" to learn about good behavior. What they need is more discipline with empathy.
Discipline with Empathy Instead of "Time Outs"
María José Roldán

Written and verified by the psychopedagogue María José Roldán.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

All parents want their children to become good people and, therefore, seek to make their methods of discipline effective. Fortunately, discipline has evolved along with society. As a result, corporal punishment and the “because I said so” mentality aren’t as common as they used to be. Why? Because time has proven these methods to be ineffective. With that in mind, it’s also important to understand why discipline with empathy is more effective than using “time outs.”

Now we know that it’s better to give children kinder and more thoughtful commands to help them understand the importance of good behavior. We don’t need to leave them waiting in a time out in order for them to reflect on their own. Rather, we need to provide them with adult references and guide them in their reflection.

Time outs can make things worse for everyone if we carry them out poorly. But, with some simple adjustments, they can serve their purpose, leading to happier children and parents. So, the next time you find yourself battling over a time out, consider this process to make things better…

Discipline with empathy

Discipline with Empathy Instead of "Time Outs"

First, calm down

It can seem difficult to calm down when your child’s having a huge tantrum crying on the floor or is angry and hitting. The behavior your child exhibits is, obviously,  not acceptable. However, it’s not calculated or malicious either. It’s important to remember that grabbing and hitting are sometimes the only tools children possess to express how upset they are about something.

Putting children in time outs when they are already distressed will only make them more confused and angry before they’ve calmed down.

In other words, your child may end up in total survival mode. That is, totally unable to access the parts of the brain that are capable of reasoning. As a result, they’re completely unable to process any “use your words and not your hands” lesson you’re trying to impart.

After children are calm, you can take them aside and teach them that lesson – but don’t make it a punishment. Rather, use the lesson as a way to help them understand the consequences of their behavior.

Provide words for their emotions before “time outs”

Children need vocabulary lessons and learning words from a very early age. Having the right words to express the many new feelings they’re having will help them learn to sort through those feelings and later link them to appropriate responses.

So, start the conversation early: “I know it was very frustrating when you wanted that truck and couldn’t have it.” Or “I can see that you’re very disappointed that your block tower fell down.” These may seem like big words for children, but they’re experiencing very big feelings. Giving them language validates those feelings. It helps them understand them and react appropriately as they grow up.

Don’t confuse distraction with success

Children are always looking for ways to learn and grow. And distraction teaches nothing about controlling behavior. A successful waiting period doesn’t end with your children telling you that they’ve messed up or apologizing by saying that another day will be better.

Rather, it ends with children being calm and able to talk about appropriate and healthy ways to express their emotions. Being present when your child is most stressed will also create a sense of confidence. It teaches them that you’ll be there for them whenever they’re stressed throughout the many stages of their growth… Including the difficult teenage years. That’s discipline with empathy.

Discipline with empathy sets the stage for the future

There are times when little ones stop crying and say they don’t need a time out just because they don’t want to be alone. But, again, empathy will be your best tool. When you use time outs, children only learn that you leave them alone when they need you most.

This will keep your kids come to you when they need help at other critical times. For example, during adolescence, or when they feel sad, scared, or need help calming down and dealing with a situation that bothers them.

Without your constant help, your children won’t know how to regulate the emotional storm they’re feeling. And, therefore, they won’t learn to react well to stressful situations. That’s why helping little ones learn to calm down is necessary. However, it won’t happen after just a few times… Your children will need you throughout their entire lives.

Discipline with Empathy Instead of "Time Outs"

Helping your children have the ability to “self-calm” by providing appropriate words to describe his or her emotions will always be necessary. Your child should know that you’ll always be present and available, which will help them understand those strong feelings.

Not approving of particular behavior and understanding emotions is the best gift a parent can give. Your children will know that they can always come to you, no matter what.

Maybe you’re the one who needs the time out

In short, when your children are calm, take a few minutes to think about your own reaction. Did you yell at them? Did you get angry? In the midst of the whirlwind of child-raising, parents often need a little help to regulate their own emotions.

If possible, walk away and spend a few minutes alone. If you can’t, try to get your child interested in something else while they calm down and breathe. Afterward, you can talk about what’s happened.

Remember, if in the heat of the moment you forget and find yourself in another battle, it’s okay. Take a deep breath. You and your little one are learning together.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • García Vega, L,. (2020) Castigar no es educar: Todas las ventajas de la Disciplina Positiva. Editorial: Planeta

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.