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The Truth about Time Out


One childhood story my mom loves to share as proof of my intractable nature is my reaction to time out. My pediatrician recommended time out as a way to deal with my frequent tantrums and my mom decided to try it. She had a chair ready and the next time a terrible tantrum started my mom directed me to sit down and keep my butt in the chair. The next thing that happened was me walking around the house with that chair stuck to my backside. When my mom asked the doctor what she should do next, the response was, “get a bigger chair.”

So, how useful is time out? Imagine for a moment that you are at a work meeting with colleagues. You can smell the fresh brewed coffee from the co-worker next to you and hear your co-worker on the other side tapping his fingers on the table. And then you say something that your supervisor disagrees with. Now imagine your supervisor’s response is to ask you to move your chair into a corner of the room for the rest of the meeting. How might you feel? Would you feel you were loved and accepted by the group? Would you feel the environment was a safe place to be yourself? Would you be thinking about how wrong you were and how to do better, or would you be thinking about polishing up your resume and getting the heck out of there? The truth is, when we put a child in time out we are giving them the message that when they misbehave our response is to banish them from the group. When we are trigged by a behavior, our reaction is anger and frustration, and we use time out because we need a break. And that’s okay. Tell your child you need a break. Say, “I am feeling (frustrated/sad/angry, etc.). I am going to take a break.” Maybe you take three deep breaths, maybe you crinkle your toes and flex your fingers, maybe you get a drink of water or count to ten. Your child may need a break too, so demonstrate how you are taking a break and invite your child to join you. Now, you are ready to deal with whatever behavior is triggering your need for time out in a healthy, productive way.

Stop and Think

One thing I learned during my career in early education I want to share with every parent is behavior is communication and behavior is expressing an unmet need. I tell clients that parenting is like being a private investigator, your child often won’t have the words to express their needs, thoughts, and feelings and it is up to us to examine our child’s behavior to uncover what they are trying to communicate. Is your child communicating a need for attention? Is she hungry/tired/sick or feeling unsafe? Is he telling you that your expectations are too high? Is she bored? Is he expressing that he needs support to complete a task? Is she overwhelmed by changes in your family or at school? Sometimes, when a child is frustrated or upset, they are overwhelmed by their feelings; and if they don’t get the emotional support they need, their feelings will brim over until everyone else is feeling the same way.

Expectations

A 5-year-old has been on this earth less than 2,000 days, and a 2-year-old has been on this earth less than 1,000 days, and yet sometimes we expect things from our children that they are not equipped to handle. If we are asking children to be quiet, sit still, or wait while we finish a task, we get frustrated because they cannot comply. Asses your child’s abilities and change your expectations if they are unrealistic. Remember, a child’s development does not go in a straight line, sometimes your child can accomplish something independently one day and the next day be overwhelmed by the same task. Understand that your child will fluctuate between striving for independence and demanding help. Toileting, dressing, and cleaning up are all things that might require extra help or encouragement.

Set Your Child up for Success

If you find yourself constantly using the words, “No,” “Don’t,” and “Stop,” chances are you haven’t set your child up for success. If your child is constantly grabbing things like the remote, which are just too tempting, keep them out of your child’s reach or in a locked cupboard (always store medication and cleaning supplies in a secure place your child cannot access). One client has a three-year-old who grabs her legs while she is preparing dinner. Recognizing that he loves cars she decided to give him a small tray with cars that he can play with in the kitchen while she preps dinner. Children are still learning focus and concentration and it takes them more time to do things. Leave extra time in your schedule, warn children about upcoming transitions, and be prepared to offer help when needed. Take time to connect with your child daily, have morning cuddle time, turn off screens during dinner, be silly, read together every night, and give lots and lots of hugs. The more you connect with your child the more cooperative he will be.

Social Emotional Needs

Sometimes it may seem like your child melts down at the drop of a hat, she may scream when her brother pokes her, cry when it’s time to go to school, and be inconsolable when her tower crumbles. It’s important to remember that it takes a lifetime to build emotional intelligence. Adults are resilient because we have a lifetime of experience that gives us greater perspective, but your child is brand new to big and overwhelming feelings. If you find yourself saying, “Stop crying, it’s no big deal,” recognize that it is a big deal to your child. Teach children that it is safe to have feelings and express emotions. Help children label their feelings and teach them acceptable ways to express emotion, “You can hit a pillow when you are angry, but you can’t hurt your sister.” Ask your child what might help him feel better, “Would you like a hug?” “Do you need my help?” You can express empathy without giving in, “I’m sorry you are so upset but it’s still time to get ready for bed, what story should we read tonight?”

Guidance & Redirection

A child who is climbing the furniture may be expressing his need to be active, instead of punishing your child, redirect him to another activity such as dancing to lively music. Demonstrate an appropriate way for your young child to touch her baby sister and then praise her when she is gentle. “Clean-up” might be too difficult of a request, instead say, “Would you like to clean up your blocks or your puzzles first?” And sometimes, instead of a “time out” your child may need a “time in.” Recognize that sometimes difficult behavior is an invitation from your child to spend more time with them. Sit on the floor, ask if you can play near your child, follow your child’s cues to sit quietly or have a conversation, offer help if your child appears to be struggling. As humans we crave love and acceptance. Make sure you have times when your child gets your whole attention, not looking at your phone, making dinner, or getting ready to go, but playing and connecting, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Make Children Part of the Solution

The goal of discipline should not be to punish your child for misbehavior but to guide him and help him make a better choice. Time out is not effective because most children don’t have the self-regulation skills to sit quietly and think about what they have done and change their future behavior. Instead, they fidget, they daydream, their eyes wander, they feel angry and resentful. Punishment does not help children make better choices, it is often unrelated to the behavior and does not make sense to your child. Instead, teach her that her behavior has consequences, and she will need to take responsibility. If your child spills his milk help him learn to clean up his spill, if he knocks all of his puzzle pieces on the floor, he will need to pick them up, if he harms another child ask him how he could help the other child feel better. As adults, we recognize there are consequences for our actions, but no one puts us in time out, instead, we must fix our mistakes and repair harm. Positive guidance, not punishment will help your child learn life skills that time out cannot teach.

Parenting may be the hardest job there is and the most demanding. Ultimately, you must do what feels right for you and your family and use what works. When you understand your child’s behavior as communication, you can guide your child to make good choices and express their feelings and needs appropriately.

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