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Maybe We’ve Been Doing “Time-Out” All Wrong

Believe it or not, time-out was originally created for parents. It was seen as an opportunity for parents to take a break with the goal of ultimately helping to prevent child abuse. As of last year, in an article titled The Era of Spanking is Finally Over, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends in a policy statement published in the Journal Pediatrics, that parents not spank, hit or slap their children as it is now seen as ineffective and potentially harmful.

In a connected article, an alternative was use of a time-out – recommending parents send children to sit in a chair by themselves.

Have you tried this? Has it worked for you?

While the alternatives to spanking can be somewhat helpful, many parents find the traditional use of the time-out method as problematic.

Instead of it being used as a means of managing heightened emotions for all parties involved, it is now treated as a punishment for children.

In the way time-outs are implemented now, parents are encouraged to withhold attention and ignore any cries or requests from the child. Although the time out tactic can potentially prevent a behavior from occurring in the moment it can also make children feel abandoned, rejected, frightened and confused.

Indicators your time-out experience may not be working:

*Both you and your child find emotions escalating instead of calming down

*You find your child engaging in the same problematic behavior over and over again. And you feel stuck.

*You find you are placing your child in time-out too frequently – such as daily or even hourly. You feel you may need different options but are not sure what would work.

*Your child perpetually asks when their time-out is over while it is occurring.

*You can’t get your child to calm down enough to even start the timer. You may find you often give up before being able to start the timer

During a training I attended to become a Bringing Baby Home Gottman Educator , I learned a whole new strategy for implementing time-out in our household. In some ways it sounded a little idealistic and too good to be true, but after trying it.. I am now a true believer.

Right after this training, our need for time-out came up during an outing to Target. I know we’ve all seen the sobbing children being carried out of Target, and that day it was my turn. My daughter desperately wanted a pack of Oreos that we were denying her of which lead to an all-out meltdown on the floor.

I was flooded – overwhelmed by her strong emotional reaction, embarrassed of how it all looked, and frustrated in my daughter’s lack of self-control. I first threatened time-out as a punishment for her terrible behavior then remembered what I was taught during the training and decided to try it out.

child using time out effectively to manage emotions
Many articles suggest when using time-out to have your child go to a quiet place, like a corner of a room, but not the bedroom or a playroom where they can get distracted. I learned that actually allowing a child to take a break doing what they love is not necessarily a reward, but an opportunity to teach your child to self soothe as a way to manage their out of control emotional reactions. So it’s OK to send them to their room or in an area where creativity can thrive. The child needs a space to do something positive that can help alleviate their intensified emotions. It is not until these strong emotions are more controlled that the experience can even become a learning opportunity after.

This article shares:

What I’ve learned about children in my years of research is that their brains do not take information in when they are dysregulated (or very upset). During times of emotional upset, children are functioning from their lower brain (which controls the fight, flight, or freeze response) and need to calm down before they can access their higher brain (responsible for logical thought and reasoning).

I shared with our five-year-old that when we got home, she would be going to time-out and explained that the purpose of the time-out was for her to calm herself down. I tried to make that clear several times, as I knew she was parent using time out the right wayminimally listening to me. I shared with her she would be going to her room and could play with anything she wanted as long as it helped to calm her down. I gave her suggestions such as reading a book or playing with a puzzle. As I left the room and closed the door, she was banging on the door which made me think I was nuts for trying what I learned and knew this was doomed to be ineffective. I set the timer on the oven for 5 minutes, because I also learned time-outs should last for one minute with every year of age of the child (she was 5).

The banging stopped, the oven timer eventually went off and I looked at my husband feeling nervous about what I was about to find in her bedroom.

I slowly opened the door to find her sitting on the floor with an open book in her lap. She looked up, tears filled her eyes and she started to say “mommy, I’m sorry.” This was now the springboard for us to be able to talk about what happened. I asked her what she was sorry for and we discussed how she can safely and more effectively share her emotions when she does not get what she wants in the future. I was shocked. My husband was shocked. But we knew we would try this again.

aftermath of time out processing what happened
So did it work again in the future? YES

A few months down the road, my daughter started getting an attitude with me and I felt we were going down a familiar road. I shared with her what I was noticing and gave her an option.

“It seems as though you are feeling frustrated and you are starting to say things that can hurt other’s feelings.”

I made it clear it was not a punishment and offered her the opportunity to take a time-out and go in her room to help calm herself down. I instructed her she will know it is time to come back when she was feeling better. I didn’t think she would do it, as she honestly does not tend to like being in her room by herself even to get dressed in the morning. She looked at me and walked off.

Into her room.

And came out moments later with a new attitude, apologizing for the way she had talked to me.

Some parents have found now that they are replacing their time out chair for a calm down area. Other parents are opting more for “Time In.” 

The Gottman Institute teaches positive parenting:

When we don’t accept feelings, we inadvertently cause children to feel frustrated and possibly think there is something wrong with them because of how they feel.

It is our job to teach our kids that feeling negative emotions is OK and teaching them to appropriately express those emotions is the key. This may mean giving them the words to express anger or sadness such as “How you feel is important to me. Instead of flopping on the ground, I would love it if you would tell me you were feeling angry.” It’s also important to check ourselves with how comfortable we are in holding those emotions in our children. A lot of us grew up in households where expressing anger meant danger or feeling sad was not allowed. We want our children to know they can feel sad.

When we accept feelings and limit behaviors, we teach children that their emotions are a normal human experience and they are responsible for…their actions surrounding those emotions.

It does not mean we do not discipline. It just means discipline comes after the opportunity to self soothe.

There are many things to do to teach a child how to regulate his emotions, from deep breaths, coloring, hugs, visualization, and jumping jacks. Different things work for different children, and you will know what calms down your child.

calm down area or time inRemember just like your child needs to learn skills in self soothing, so do adults! Giving yourself a time out as a reasonable way to take care of yourself when feeling overwhelmed. Allowing yourself a time out is really for everyone’s benefit!

strengthened relationship after a time out

Want to learn more skills in managing strong emotional reactions in children? Check out Gottman’s Emotion Coaching Program.

Thrive Therapy Florida is ready to help with any parenting concerns or challenges in the couple’s relationship. Call today to schedule an appointment.