Changing from “Time-Out” to “Take a Break”

child cryingI’ve got 2 adorable children at my house that struggle with emotions and behavior.  As an occupational therapist, I’ve worked with hundreds of children who struggle with emotions and behavior.  Each child struggles in his or her own unique way and for their own unique reasons.  What they all have in common is that it is a struggle for the child.  As parents we often forget that the “behaviors” our children do are not just something they do to annoy us or challenge us.  The behaviors are often a great struggle for the child as well. I make this distinction because if your child is misbehaving, the instinct is to correct them or punish them (i.e. put them in time-out).  However, if your child is struggling, the instinct is to help them.  Most children need help, not punishment.

When you put your child in time-out, it assumes that your child is deliberately doing something wrong and that they knew what they should be doing and how to control their emotions and behavior.  I will admit that there are times that children do this, but that is not the majority of the time for most kids.  Most children fall apart due to lack of understanding (they didn’t know it was wrong) or lack of skill (they didn’t know how to remain calm or fix the situation).  Again, most children need help, not punishment.

turn aroundA simple change most parents can make is to switch from “time-out” (which are punishment) to “take a break.” 

So what does it mean to “take a break”?  A break is an adult supported interruption of an activity to work on calming down (self-regulation) understanding a situation (cognition) and skills development (usually adapting behavior appropriately to the situation).  It is turning around the situation from needing parents to enforce to instead support and teach.  It turns the situation in another direction, from punish to an opportunity for learning and grow.


 For example…

Situation:  Molly and Suzy are building block castles together.  Little sister Suzy knocks down Molly’s castle.  Suddenly, Molly erupts into tears and screams, “Stop, stop, stop!”

The traditional “time-out” approach is to send one or both girls to a secluded spot alone for 2-3 minutes of sitting quietly and calming as a punishment (in hopes they magically will “learn their lesson”).

The take a break approach would interrupt the activity as well, but then the parent would help.  Most likely Molly is experiencing such as strong and sudden emotion that she needs help to calm down.  This may look similar to a time when a parent removes Molly to a quiet and calm place, but then the parent can stay or leave depending on whether Molly needs help to calm down.  There is often no time limit, but simply that the child can return once they are calm.  Upon returning to the task (once the child is calm), then the parent has the chance to reflect with the children and teach new skills.  “Do you think sister was trying make you sad?  Maybe she just wanted to play with you.  What could we try this time to make this work better?

child taking a breakThere is no right or wrong way to take a break with a child. 

Each child is different and needs different things.  At first, most children benefit from a set spot for a break, which is often a quiet spot away from the main activities in the house.  However, as children gain skills, they can take a break anywhere or anytime it is needed (just like the child in the photo taking a break while on a nature walk.)  Some children really need a visual to help them understand and focus on the break.  A small piece of fabric (like an old baby blanket) works well and is portable.

Children will need adult help at first to know what to do while taking a break (how to calm down), but as they mature and learn they will need less help and will eventually be able to take a break alone.  The end goal is that children will recognize their own emotions and the need to calm down along with strategies to calm themselves in a variety of situations.  Adults can help children gain this skill by modeling how to remain calm, thinking out loud about calming strategies (“This is really hard, my brain feels angry and fast”), and by providing visual cues as needed (such as a card reminding a child how to do deep breathing).  For more ideas, check out this post on teaching children about emotions.

Some realistic goals:

For age 2-3, children will take a break with an adult helping most of the time.  The adult models how to stay calm, deep breathing, and helps to calm the child if needed.  Very little talking is done, mostly just through body language.

For age 3-4, children will progress to taking a break with minimal adult help.  They will still need an adult to tell them to take a break most often, but they will have learned and be using some simple self-calming strategies at least some of the time.take a break

For age 4-5, children can start to realize they need a break and can go to a quiet spot alone to take a break.  It won’t happen all the time, but the skill is emerging.  Children will start to become more flexible in how they calm down and use a greater variety of strategies.

But won’t this encourage my child to misbehave to get my attention?  Maybe.  Children love to get adult attention in any way that works.  In my experience, children also seek attention through time-outs, but that becomes a control battle with children where they gain adult attention by being non-compliant with the time-out.  A child does get attention through taking a break, but hopefully parents can use their attention to reinforce the positive changes in behavior, such as praising a child when they calm down or problem-solve a situation.

My child won’t calm down!  In my experience time-outs tend to escalate situations, while taking a break tends to deescalate.  However, there are always times that children really struggle to calm down.  Emotions are very strong in children’s brains, so calming down often takes more time than adults realize.  Children’s brain get flooded with chemicals from the strong emotions, and sometimes more time is needed for that to pass.  Secondly, calming is a skill.  It needs to be learned and will take time.  See my posts on home ideas to teach children about emotions and home ideas to teach calming for more tricks:

There is no “magic fix” to most children’s behavior.  The development of children’s brains is complex and takes a lot of time.  Many behaviors are just a developmental phase that will pass with time, encouragement, and learning new skills.  I encourage parents to view their children’s behaviors and struggles as learning opportunities and to think of their role as a parent as being a teacher and guide.  Using the strategy of “take a break” is one way to teach and guide your children through their struggles.


Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.