13 - 15 Months

Why timeouts don’t work for toddlers—and what to do instead

Mother holding an unhappy toddler

Timeouts are a controversial topic. They were first suggested as an alternative to spanking, but in the decades since, their effectiveness has come into question. In the meantime, the more modern, thoughtful “time-in” has gained traction: removing your child from a situation while staying with them to help them calm down. The goal is always to help your child regulate their feelings, and they can do that more effectively when you are close by. 

Are timeouts bad?

To be clear, the occasional timeout isn’t going to hurt your child, especially if it’s something you need for yourself during a tough moment. While there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that timeouts have a negative effect on a child’s development, a lot is known about why they don’t work at this age.

When toddlers are separated from the adults who love them as a form of punishment, the following tends to happen:

  1. They won’t have any idea why they’ve been isolated
  2. The strong feelings they are already having are magnified, not soothed
  3. They don’t learn how to understand their emotions or what to do with them
  4. They aren’t able to change their behavior the next time

How to help your toddler reset

Whether they’re pulling someone’s hair, throwing blocks, or being a little too wild, what your child really needs in this moment is your help to get through their big feelings. Think of this as a “reset” or a “restart” rather than a timeout. Here’s how:

Move them away calmly

If your toddler needs space away from a situation, move them to a different spot (a room, or some other quiet place) as calmly as you can. You can hold their hand and walk with them, or pick them up and carry them. It can be so hard to stay calm yourself during these moments, but remember: your toddler isn’t giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time—and they need your steady guidance to reset.

Put words to what’s happening and your toddler’s feelings

In brief terms, explain what’s going on. If your toddler is being unsafe with their body, they aren’t trying to misbehave; they aren’t old enough to break rules on purpose. What they need is a reset. Try telling them, “Your body is not being safe, so I’m moving you so no one gets hurt. We’re going to spend some time together calming down.” 

Describing how your child might be feeling shows them you understand their feelings, and that these emotions are normal. You might say, “I see you want really want a piece of candy—it looks yummy. We’re not going to have a piece today, and I can see that makes you feel sad.”

Distract them

At this age, distraction is your friend. When possible, try to offer them something related to what they’re upset about; if they were throwing blocks, give them something soft (like a scarf) to throw instead. You’re not trying to teach them any lessons, so anything that helps them calm down is going to help them feel more grounded.

Help them move on

Every toddler needs different things when they’re dysregulated. In these first months of their second year of life, some children begin needing more space; don’t be surprised if your formerly-cuddly baby sometimes needs a little bit of space with you nearby.

Resets don’t need to be long. Your job is to help them calm down enough to move on—once they have, the reset can be over.

Play the long game

When you frame these moments as resets rather than timeouts, you not only help your toddler now, you also lay the groundwork for the future. As they get older, they may well want some time alone, away from you. Now, though, what they need most during a moment of big feelings is a loving, caring adult to help them through it ❤️


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Posted in: 13 - 15 Months, 16 - 18 Months, Social Emotional, Behavior, Lovevery App, Parenting, Child Development

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