Toddlers making Trouble:  11 Helpful Alternatives to Timeout

Toddlers making Trouble: 11 Helpful Alternatives to Timeout

Positive and Effective Alternatives to Timeout for Young Children

Toddlers don’t really mean to be making trouble. They spend their days trying to understand and discover their environment, their place and space in the world. They are growing and learning how to coordinate their bodies and regulate impulses. Just about every day, toddlers make mistakes. Create messes.  Do things that are sometimes hard for parents to understand.

Then you intervene. Distract….Say “don’t” and “NO!” but it seems to make no difference at all….

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to best handle the messy, sassy, misbehaving toddler situations.

If you are too stern,  your toddler might crumble into a tantrum.  If you are too lenient you risk being permissive and not teaching your tot what’s expected. So you try a time out, only your not sure these are working either.

Time outs used to be highly recommended for the toddler years. Not any more! 

Even if you follow up time out with loving hugs,  what you are teaching your child to think is that if they make a mistake or if they feel emotionally overwhelmed, you will force them to handle that on their own. This is experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection, explains author of No Drama Discipline and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Daniel Siegel.

alternatives to timeouts toddlers

Placing a toddler in the corner or on a naughty chair is unlikely to prevent misbehavior from showing up again.  In fact, your toddler is more likely to repeat a misbehavior after time out. Time out can also leave your toddler feeling upset, confused and anxious.

Here are guidance based and effective alternatives to time out that can help your toddler thrive:

1. Meet your toddlers needs: If you notice your little one is getting restless or cranky it can be useful to run a mental check list; are they hungry, tired, bored, in need of a diaper change? Meeting that immediate need will likely bring everyone back into harmony.

2. Provide a toddler friendly environment: If you find yourself repeatedly asking your child not to touch the ceramic kitty, not touch the glass vase on the floor and not climb the plant stand, think about stowing it away temporarily or placing it out of reach. For both tot and parents being able to navigate a child friendly home takes away hours of hassle and potential struggles.

3. Create and keep a routine: Toddlers love repetition. A predictable day helps toddlers know what to expect and learn the family expectations. Routines also help toddlers feel more in control of their world. Allowing some flexibility in the routine can also be helpful, for example if you usually dress and then brush teeth but your toddler doesn’t seem to want to get dressed one morning, why not offer the option to brush and then dress.

4. Hugs & Cuddles: Often a toddler will calm down and refocus her attention with a gentle touch, hug and when you show a genuine smile. This positive attention tells a toddler that you care about them.

5. Change locations: Maybe the playroom has become overwhelming, maybe the livingroom is boring, sometimes moving locations just gives a toddler and parent a new perspective and a chance to engage in a different activity.

6. Read together: Books with gentle messages like “Hands Are Not For Hitting” can be great ways for toddlers to learn acceptable social skills. Books about feelings like “The Pigeon Has Feelings Too” and “Lots of Feelings” can help toddlers start to name and recognize feelings which helps further develop emotional intelligence.

7. Walk and then Talk: If you observe your child ready to strike at another child or ready to pull all the books down from a shelf, instead of telling or yelling for toddler to stop, walk over, (ok you might need to run) look the toddler in the eye and offer them something else to play with. Being pro-active and preventing strikes and bites is vastly more effective than punishing in reaction to something that could have been prevented.

8. Whisper: If your toddler is playing with their voice and exploring sounds and it has become just too loud for you, whispering is a great way to get your toddlers attention. Children often are so surprised and curious they might even follow you in whispering.

9. Special Time: Having a special time in the day to cuddle and play with your toddler is a powerful way to keep a strong connection with your tot. Placing cellphones away, and turning off the tv and computer and focusing just on the one on one time for just ten to fifteen minutes a day means the world to a child. The more connected a toddler feels the more likely she will be to listen and cooperate throughout the day.

10. Demonstrate: Show your tot where or how your family likes to do things. Lets say your toddler has thrown chunks of play-dough onto the carpet.  This isn’t something you would like to see happening at your house. Start cleaning up and invite your child to help. Then play with your tot, using the play-dough and demonstrate where to play with it. Reinforcing with simple words “play-dough stays on the table” helps toddlers remember what is expected.

11. Support curiosity: Often toddlers tinker with household items to figure out what they are and how they work but it leads to thing being broken. Having some safe household items for your tot to explore in a busy basket or designated toddler drawer like an old telephone, a kitchen colander, measuring cups, can safely satisfy this curiosity. Rotate the items found in these locations to keep it interesting.

By implementing these alternatives you are building a very special bond with your child – a connection that lasts a life time.

Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting believes that your effectiveness as parents is in direct proportion to the strength of the bond you have with your child. “Securing and maintaining that bond is our primary work as parents and is the key to optimal human development”.

If it feels like your toddler is taking over the house or over your life because of these adjustments, take heart, much like the need for safety gates and outlet covers this phase is temporary and fleeting. You can learn how to focus on your connection with your child and how to transform defiance into cooperation by joining the Positive parenting in the First Five Years online class. Enrollment is open and I hope to see you in the classroom!

“Since taking this course we haven’t been late for preschool or struggled with getting out the door even once – I’ve learned so much that is practical and effective – this course was just what I needed to be a more confident mom!” 

Peace & Be Well,


***** Related Reading : Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children written by the founder of Positive Parenting Connection. Now available on Amazon (Print / Kindle)  ****

Books mentioned:
Lots of Feelings by Shelley Rotner
The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too! by Mo Willems
Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi Ph.D., Marieka Heinlen

Image: Tom Clare /

terrible toddler toddler discipline time out toddler help with toddler behaviour

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

12 Responses to Toddlers making Trouble: 11 Helpful Alternatives to Timeout

  1. Thank you for this! I am constantly trying to figure out ways that I can help practice discipline (not PUNISHMENT) with my almost 3 year old. I’m all the time seeing and hearing people writing and saying that spanking and time outs are bad and don’t work, but no one offers an alternative. I want to find ways to be gentle with my children, but I need ways that work, and these ways you’ve offered are so simple that I’ve completely overlooked the ideas. And they sound like they’ll work really well with my daughter. So again, thanks.

  2. Erin – I’m so glad to hear you think these things will work with your daughter. Wishing you well!

  3. Great tips! I have unfortunately spanked my son a few times and have tried time-out too. But it didn’t work and made me feel bad. And it really did make my son more aggressive or louder. Some parents swear by a swat or time-out but for my son he responds best to love and connection.

  4. Jenn, it sounds like you are finding a new gentler path that is wonderful for you and your son. thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. Thanks for discussing some alternatives to time-out. I don’t think we have ever used one, but I will suggest that my 4yo leave the room if he is screaming mad. (I don’t care if he screams, I just don’t want him to scream at me!) Or I’ll ask him if he would feel better if he went somewhere to cool down – but it is his choice.

  6. Dionna, thanks for sharing that! my 5yr old also likes to scream at times, we have a small room adjacent to the livingroom that has become the go to place to scream and yell out frustrations and cool off.

  7. My 2 years girls, always give me hard time putting on her clothes, some times I can’t handle it, especially in the morning before the my work

  8. Thanks a lot for listing out simple techniques to make better connections with toddlers! I use a lot of them, but I know I need to work on some others. I’m sure these alternatives will help everyone!

  9. Hi, this is really good information here and just stumbled on this Pinterest board. My 2yr 4mnth old girl, I can honestly say, has only needed to be put on time out 1x, by ME!? It was very tramatic for her and I, but at the time i really needed to drive home the danger of the situation we found ourselves in. Now, this was my fault, as her care taker, to have known better!? However, I had went over and over this w/her and momentarily trusted a toddler!!?? We had recently moved into a house from a condo,& we were down a long driveway away from the street. I mentioned I went over the rules alot, but one day we were in the yard, that is fenced in, Phone rang,,,she was engaged,,,i ran in house struggled a lil to find phone(cordless)came out w/in seconds,,,didn’t see her,,no panic yet,,looked in her toys-house’s then noticed her chasing our dog down driveway to the street!!?? I panicked got her just in time,, i didn’t yell just hugged her, but began explaining how dangerous that was and she seemed unphased, as I was shaking so bad i wanted to vomit!! I then put her on time out, which i mentioned tramatized both of us!? What could I have done differently, other than the obviously!? I just didn’t know how to stress to her in that moment how dangerous both of our actions were? I felt like I got it, but she was not listening and told her that action calls for immediate time out(no warnings) She was very upset and kept getting up and i kept putting her back for 2mins, but now all I have to say is time out and she is frightened?! I wish I could of done something else? I never yelled or got out of control but she might of picked up on my panic in the whole ordeal? I am terrified to put her on time out again?! Will she recover?!

  10. Hi, thank your for these tips. I am a mother to 23 mo twins and I have a new baby on the way. What I am struggling with is giving them any one-on-one time. Occasionally one will sleep longer than the other during nap time and I LOVE this one-on-one time. It is usually so peaceful and I can tell the child enjoys it. I feel so guilty that they can’t get more of it and that doesn’t look like it will improve with a new baby on the way. With them both being the same age, and behavior often being directed towards the other child, it can be very hard to separate them. I use change of room and moving on to another activity often but would really love to be able to do a little more alone time. Any suggestions?

  11. Hi Lindsay, I find one great way to create more one on one time with multiples is to help each child develop independent play skills, this can be with sensory bins, puzzles, dolls, anything they are interested in exploring, tinkering, playing with alone, while you engage in play with the other child. It’s usually best to first help both children become comfortable with independent play (if they are not yet) and then tell them you are doing “special Andy time” followed by “special Mary time” (using their names helps them really want this time) and you can set a timer too. Alternate who goes first each day and most families find it most helpful to keep this in the daily routine. Of course there might be interruptions but over time, it can really develop into a really nice rhythm. This post has great play ideas for tots to do alone: hope that helps!

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