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Timeout Alternatives: Promoting Awareness and Self-regulation

When we place children in timeout, we unknowingly condition them to associate being alone with themselves as punishment. In reality, that time to themselves allows for self-awareness and self-regulation, helping them manage overwhelm and conflict.

Conscious parenting uses timeout alternatives to help kids change behavior and learn from mistakes.

Three timeout alternatives and how they teach self-regulation:

Calm Down Corner

Creating a soothing space in your home that your kids can access whenever they need invites them to recognize moments when they feel emotionally overwhelmed.

The space might include:

  • Pillows

  • Soft seat

  • Blanket

  • Favorite stuffed animals

  • Books

  • Calming activities like pop-its, puzzles, coloring books, or bubbles.

Rather than being a punishment, the Calm Down Corner is a gentle invitation for your child to take good care of themselves and to feel more settled. Using your own steadiness and self-awareness to identify moments when your children are emotionally dysregulated invites them to move into a place of emotional regulation.

During a sibling argument, saying words like “It seems like you could use some time to work through that big sadness” can help kids notice when they’ve reached a threshold where the strength of their emotions has surpassed their ability to manage them.

How this is different: Timeout is largely about forcing kids to sit in their mistakes. Once the nervous system is flooded with stress, it takes 5-7 minutes for kids to calm down. The injustice and frustration of timeout can frequently add to the time it takes for kids to settle, whereas the Calm Down Corner supports the nervous system as it returns to calm.

Far from uncomfortable, the calm down corner promotes self-care and soothing to self-regulate. The underlying message is, “if you take a minute to take good care of yourself, you’ll feel better.”

“Thank you for telling me.”

When your child comes to you with an admission of guilt, or you find a Crayola masterpiece on your wall and your child is brave enough to own up to it, this little phrase is all you need.

When said sincerely, you’ll see the guilt and relief on your child’s face. Often, we think we need to teach a child a lesson when they make a mistake. More often, children already know they made a mistake, and they need us to create a safe space for them to own and process their mistakes. You can even follow up with a gentle “What do you think we should do about this?” which creates space for reflection and team-like resolution of the problem.

How this is different: This approach normalizes the process of making mistakes and helps you guide your child through resolution, prioritizing communication over punishment. Often when having a conversation that starts with “Thank you for telling me,” there is a lot of learning that goes on because the child doesn’t feel threatened by the mistake but can freely own it, explore it, and learn from it.

As young kids become teenagers, the ability to serve as a safe space for mistakes and guide them through moments of unskilled judgment is even more critical as teens continue to learn self-regulation.

Empathy Flashlights

Get a small flashlight (or finger light!) and keep it on the counter. Explain that empathy means being able to connect to other people’s emotions and experiences in a kind way.

How it works:

  • After a conflict, pull out the flashlight and ask the child to shine it on themselves and identify their perspective and how they’re feeling.

  • Ask questions to help them get clarity.

  • Next, ask them to gently shine the light toward anyone else in the conflict.

  • Ask what they think the other person was experiencing and their perspective.

  • Then, shine the light around the room and notice anything else that may have contributed to the argument or disagreement (is everyone tired? Is the room messy, and that’s why someone tripped?).

  • Once you’ve collected all this information together, gently reflect back what you heard, “So you were angry that Jill took your hair clip without asking and you felt so overwhelmed by that anger that you pulled it out of her hair. Jill felt sad and confused because she thought this was her hair clip. She was mad and hurt because you pulled some of her hair out, and she pushed you. Looking around, we realized that Jill’s hair clip was under the bathroom counter, so now she has her own, and you have yours back. Both of you were upset and responded based on how you were feeling. What do you think we should do from here?”

How this is different: Kids have the support and scaffolding to learn from the mistake in a way that builds self-awareness and empathy instead of being isolated, confused, and stuck in shame and resentment in timeout.

As parents, one of our primary goals is to help kids learn to resolve conflict and move through struggles more skillfully. During moments when our children are feeling frustrated, angry, or hurt, using timeout to isolate and punish is the furthest thing from teaching them empathy. This approach helps kids practice empathy to self-regulate, resolve conflict, and build connections.

Learning to use alternatives to timeout takes intentional planning and practice. Initially, it might feel like you’re not doing your job as a parent because punishment isn’t being issued. However, after you practice these strategies a few times, you’ll feel better, and your kids will feel better because conscious parenting strategies teach kids that mistakes and overwhelming feelings can be accepted as part of being human. Instead of fearing, hiding, and blaming mistakes on others, kids learn to own their mistakes and build self-awareness, seeking the support and comfort they need as they resolve conflict and grow in their ability to manage strong emotions.

Which idea will you try first? We would love to hear from you in the comments.


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