Time-out is almost universally accepted in our North American culture as a “go to” parenting behavioral technique. However, I often wonder about what message we are sending to our children when we use time-out. What are we teaching them?
Despite its immense popularity, as evidenced by TV shows like “Super Nanny, ” there are many reasons why time-out can be a less-than-stellar approach.
First and foremost, time-out does not help kids learn what to do with their feelings. Rather, it sends them away right at the time when they actually might benefit from our assistance.
Time-out also creates an inherent power struggle between parent and child. And however it is billed in the literature, kids do experience it as punishment.
When I talk with parents, many of them report with frustration that time-out “doesn’t work.” I agree. What parents can really benefit from is information about how our brain and emotions interact.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a child (or anyone for that matter) to “get it together” when they are already upset. Parents and kids need tools and strategies to learn how to calm themselves down.
When you first start to notice your child is becoming distressed, try to identify the “need” that underlies the behavior. Instead of focusing on the behavior immediately, ask yourself, “Is my child tired, hungry or frustrated? Addressing that “need” can often stop the behavior in its tracks.
A time-out can be a lifesaver for parents themselves when they feel their own stress rising. Walking away and counting to 10 before acting can be a very prudent step to take as an adult. But for your child, let me suggest a “time-in” instead.
A “time-in” simply means taking some time together to try to calm down. Ask your child if she needs a hug or a “time-in”(or whatever name you want to call it). Then, suggest one of the ideas listed below that you have already planned together for times like these:
Try belly breathing together so your child can practice relaxing his or her body. Once they get the hang of it, they can learn to breathe through an anxious or upset feeling.
Listen to guided imagery CDs so your child can learn and practice techniques to calm himself.
Images and imagery are wonderful tools to help children calm down and relax. When your child is not feeling upset, ask her to think of a favorite animal, toy, or a place or that helps her relax. You can remind your child to think of this image when they are feeling stressed.
Help build your child’s emotional vocabulary by creating or buy a feelings chart that you can refer to talk about different kinds of emotions.
If you have a pet, suggest your child lie next your dog or cat to calm down.
If your child is very upset and can’t use any self-soothing techniques then stay close by until she calms down. You can talk about what happened and problem-solve together once she is feeling less distress.
Telling the story afterward of what happened when your child became upset can actually help them process what happened and learn new ways to approach things next time.
If we can think of ourselves as our children’s emotional coaches we will really teach our children something they can carry into adulthoo — managing their own intense feelings.
There are many ways to handle behavior and parenting with empathy does not mean that you don’t set limits. Below are some books I recommended to learn more about becoming your child’s emotional coach and parenting with empathy:
“The Whole Brain Child” (2011, Delacorte Press)
“Between Parent and Child” (2003, Three Rivers Press)
“How to Talks So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” (2012, Scribner)
“Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason” (2005, Atria Books)
“The Happiest Toddler on the Block” (2008, Bantam Dell)