Time Out? Time In?

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Let me be straight out front. I don’t think traditional “time outs” are the best tool in your parenting toolbox. The idea that a grumpy child is going to go sit somewhere and calmly think about what they “should have done” is quite preposterous. Did you? I didn’t. When I was sent to my room I spent the whole time thinking about how unfair the situation was or plotting how I was either going to make that particular parent “pay.” Just guessing, but I don’t think that was what my parents were aiming for.

I can’t even imagine it working as an adult. I made plenty of parenting mistakes – some of which were quite disrespectful to my children. If you put yourself in my shoes for a minute you’ll know that when you are having one of those “bad parent” moments that you already feel discouraged. Imagine your response to each of the following statements from your partner.

“Honey, it looks like you’ve had a hard day. Would you like me to step in so you can take a break?
“This kind of behavior is not acceptable, you need a time out.”

Can you tell the difference? The first statement connected with my feelings. It acknowledges that underneath I really am an okay parent/person. It offers me a graceful exit so that I can go re-gather; to take a time-in with myself. It feels like support not judgment. I can step back and learn from my mistake.

The second statement is more judgmental. It is easier to come to the conclusion that I am a mistake, instead of I made a mistake. It invites a sense of shame and isolation – and from that internal awareness it is much harder to come back to my “better self.” It is hard to learn useful things from the experience.

Let’s take this one step further and apply it to the world of children whose behavior is inappropriate. I would argue that we want them to know/learn that:
1) They are loved no matter what.
2) When they are feeling good, they know how to be appropriate.
3) This behavior is inappropriate.
4) As a parent, I have faith that when they feel better they will know how to behave appropriately.

What does it look like? Several steps are required to use children to take a break or a “time-in”
• Take time for training. Talk to your child about what happens when they are upset or angry and together plan a place where s/he can go to feel better. For some children it is a tight spot like behind the couch with a favorite stuffed animal, for others it is listening to music in their room. Talk about the best way to help your child exit a situation when they are misbehaving (a secret signal, a set of words.)

Connect before correct. When your child is misbehaving help them by first naming feelings and seeing their side. Then request that they take a “time in.” It might sound like, “Sam you look really angry! Jake took your truck. I know you know it isn’t okay to hit. Do you want to cool down in your spot or read with me on the couch for a few minutes?”

How long does a child need to cool down? It may not take long. If Sam comes back seconds later it is appropriate to ask, “Are you feeling better and ready to play?” (We all make mistakes with this. But they can try cooling down again if the first try didn’t work.)

Repair. Repairing the mistake is how children learn from their mistakes. Most children can’t make the repair authentically until they have really calmed down. This often happens after they have retu

In next week’s post we’ll talk about repairs and “time – ins” for young children. If you want to read more in the mean time, check out Positive Time Out by Jane Nelsen.

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