Using Time In instead of Time Out — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, and often take care of friends’ children. Before motherhood, I worked at a child care center with preschoolers. Would you please clear up the difference between “Time Out” which some adults use much like the old-fashioned “stick your nose in the corner” and “Time In” which is useful for helping a child to calm down? Other people have said that I’m rewarding bad behavior by giving a misbehaving child my full attention. Seems to me that calming down is the first step toward helping the child learn a better way of dealing with a problem.

In With In

Don’t miss last week’s column Bedtime fears — Good Parenting

Dear IWI,

I’m with you on this, as are parents and teachers who understand the emotional life of a preschooler. So, too, are the experts who look at brain research to explain behavior. An important role of the adult is to help the child manage his emotions so he can better solve his own problems. This adult is using “Time In.” Adults who use “Time Out” to control or punish a child will likely be frustrated in their efforts.

Let’s say the child is blocked from a goal, for example: I need that green block to finish building my hospital before the first ambulance arrives. If rather than being helped (playmate happily hands it over) he is hindered (he is told he must wait until the playmate is finished with it) a chain of signals in the brain rapidly occurs resulting in screams and tears.

An out-of-control child is operating from the part of the brain that channels fear and anger into (albeit irrational) reactions. The brain identifies a situation as “alarming” or “threatening” which registers in the amygdalae (located about an inch inward from each ear) as a call to action. It is the amygdalae that are responsible for shouting matches, temper tantrums, destruction of property and other rage-based behaviors.

The amygdala — Greek for almond – is about the size and shape of an almond. I call it the “little nut.” The rational part of the mind, which is of course more developed in adults than children, is the cortex. With its lumpy rounded contours the cortex resembles a shelled walnut. Let’s call the cortex the “big nut.” It can make good decisions based on what worked or didn’t work before. It can think things through. The big nut uses language, cause and effect, prior knowledge, in other words, rational thinking.

It is counterproductive to yank a child away from his play and force him to sit still. Time Out brings on a second wave of frustration on top of the one he is already having. Remember, the amygdala does not use logic, only emotionally-charged action. A rush of stress hormones, brought on by the little nut, keeps the upset child from being able to see any hopeful outcome to his present predicament.

My conclusion about Time Out is that it does not help a child learn to do the right thing. Furthermore, if the adult gets upset it scares the child, adding even more emotion to the mix. Time In is a more productive approach in which you enfold him into your arms, lap and emotional comfort. Agree with him that the green block is vital to the completion of the hospital, and that waiting for the other child to finish using it seems beyond probability. Since you agree with him, an effective Time In results in his nodding in agreement with you, which indicates his big nut is back on the job. Now you can help him think of solutions to his problem. What purpose would the green block serve? Is there a good substitute he could use for its job? What might be traded for the singular block he needs? Or could you help him fill the waiting time with a snack, a story or checking to see if the mail is in? A rational mind can find many ways to solve a problem.

A young child often needs help to get back into his big nut. It’s always best if the adult stays in hers.

Dr. Debbie

Learn more Effective Discipline Techniques in a three-week seminar with Dr. Debbie:
April 17, 24 and May1, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. at Chesapeake Children’s Museum, 25 Silopanna Road, Annapolis. 410-990-1993. Or email [email protected] Discount for couples attending together. Approved by MSDE as continuing education for child care professionals.

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]