Time Out Is Out – August 2015

Q: My husband and I are adamantly against spanking so we’ve always used Time Outs to help get control of a situation and teach our children about managing their behavior. But now I’m hearing about that Time Outs are bad. We never figured out the secret to getting them to work that well anyway, but now we don’t know what to use.

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A: This is a great question because at one time Time Out was all the rage. It’s nonviolent, removes a child from a bad situation, and gives everyone a chance to cool down. All good stuff, so what’s the problem?

The problem with Time Outs is that even when they are delivered kindly and patiently, the message to the child is that they are not fit to be near others when they are struggling emotionally. Depending on their age and personality many children will experience a Time Out as rejection or abandonment, understanding that they only have value when they are well behaved. But it is when they are misbehaving that children most need our loving support and guidance. Triggering their fear of abandonment or a sense of low value will only worsen future behavior (not to mention self-concept and self-esteem). Plus, giving them time to sit and stew when they feel so bad is much more likely to strengthen their ability to fantasize about self-righteous revenge rather than consider how they can become a better person (which is what we all assumed they were thinking about during Time Out, right? Riiiight).

Another reason Time Outs have lost favor with many is because it is so easy to misuse them. A properly done Time Out can be helpful for some children (typically older children with a strong self-esteem and no major anxiety) if they need a break from the action, they are not there for long (no longer than same number of minutes as age), it’s not punishment, and you debrief with them afterwards so they understand what was inappropriate about their behavior and what they will try next time. The idea of a true Time Out is that the child can de-escalate and return to the situation feeling better able to cope. But when you don’t know how to effectively use Time Out it’s easy for it to morph into a shameful punishment of isolation that lasts too long and relies on a reprimand rather than teaching and support. When a child misbehaves you want them to learn stuff about emotion regulation, behavior management, empathy, and problem-solving. Rather than teaching this, isolation sends the message that the child is bad, and people who feel bad about themselves behave badly. Removing a child from the chaos isn’t enough for long-term learning to occur. For that, you need connection – the opposite of what is offered with a Time Out.

When a child is knowingly misbehaving, that is a clear message that they’re struggling with some big emotions, don’t know how to handle them, and they need us. Time Out won’t provide that. Enter the “Time In” where all the same stuff happens, plus a bit more, while in your supportive presence.

A Time In uses misbehavior as a signal that your child has big, distressing emotions they can’t handle and needs a loving connection with you in that moment. Here’s how it works: the family has already designated a safe and comfortable area that anyone can go to if they need to calm down. Books and stuffed animals can be there for comfort. You use a Time In when the child doesn’t respond well to several redirections. You tell them kindly or neutrally that they need a Time In and why (“Honey, it looks like you’re having trouble sharing the toys. Let’s go to Time In.”). You go with them to the special spot and offer your nonjudgmental presence. Respect their needs when possible. If they don’t want you to look at them, don’t. If they want to talk, let them lead and limit your participation to empathy and problem solving. Take nothing personally. Gently set limits on inappropriate behavior (such as hitting you or ripping books) but otherwise just let them be. The point is to allow them to have their feelings and come out the other side with you there, accepting them. When the anger has passed there will typically be sadness and more of an openness to comfort. Unlike Time Out, Time in teaches kids that they can tolerate distressing emotions and how to do this, that having those emotions is not “bad” and they are still loveable, and that you are on their team even through rough patches. This adds to a healthy self-concept and strengthens self-esteem. Plus you didn’t have to be the bad guy. Win!

So there you have it. Time In is the new Time Out. Give it a shot.