Suzie threatens Johnny with a time out. When Johnny’s behavior does not relent, she places him in a corner, chair or zone for a series of minutes (often corresponding to his age), with no toys, no attention, talking or eye contact. If Johnny attempts to leave the determined spot, Suzie enters a power struggle with Johnny and replaces him in the designated spot. If Johnny screams tiny-person obscenities (like “stupid, poopoo mama, I hate you, I don’t love you anymore”), she restarts the time out clock until he is silent and takes his punishment like a little man.
Discipline strategies are a hot debate these days. Is it OK to spank or not? (See my opinion here.) How do we feel about color coding behaviors in the classroom and sticker charting our kids’ rights and wrongs? I’ll answer that one another time. Is time out OK or not? This one is the most nuanced of them all.
Before we get our Mommy panties in a bunch over a debate on discipline strategies, let’s pause. Ultimately, we want our children to love and be loved. Pausing for a moment to think – that is an internal time out!
If you wrestle with conducting an effective time out, consider the following tips:
1. Time out is a pause in the game. It’s not the resolution itself.
Think of a conflict with your spouse or partner. When things get too heated, it’s healthy for someone to call a time out. In a game of soccer, baseball or Quidditch, a time out is a pause in the process – it is not how the game itself is lost or won.
2. Time out is appropriate, sometimes.
Time out is good for getting some distance from an issue, so we can see it better. When your child (or you, for that matter) gets too dysregulated to see logic, his brain is totally flooded in fight/flight mode (see my previous post on the Three F-Words). Think banshee in cute clothes. Neurochemically, it takes approximately 20 minutes from the time our brains stop producing the neurotransmitters responsible for the banshee-like behavior for them to empty into our kidneys. After that, they move to the bladder. We literally pee out the crazies! Cortisol stays in our system, and the only way to rid it from our bodies is to sweat (exercise) or cry (cortisol is found in emotional tears) to relieve the tension. This 20 minute window implies that there’s a window of tolerance from the time he calms down for your child’s ability to hear you when you try to talk sense. Side note: For your marriage, consider calling a 20-minute time out when discussions become too heated!
So am I suggesting that we stick little Johnny in the corner for a 20 minute time out each and every time he starts screaming bloody murder? Nope. I’m suggesting we frame time out differently than a prison (or time out chair) sentence: time out is a pause to collect oneself. Time out isn’t supposed to be punitive because when it is, children don’t learn. For this reason, you might want to consider using different terminology for your time outs: “take a break,” “pause,” or “go to a safe spot” – whatever works. When we make time out a negative experience for kids, we rob them of a really useful emotional skill they will need for the rest of their lives: learning to calm and return to a problem for resolution, which leads to …
3. Using methodical time outs could lead to missed opportunities to teach prosocial skills.
Immediately resorting to a time out scenario like Suzie and Johnny’s teaches avoidance of others as the way to manage other people’s unwanted behavior, rather than teaching prosocial, verbal skills for resolving conflict. Time out gives the future generation permission to ignore, not make eye contact, and nonverbally reject others when they feel slighted. Most importantly, sending a child away when they are at their worst says, “You may only be near me on the condition that you are good.” To the contrary, we want our children to know that we are with them at their most unlovable moments, that we love them in spite of themselves, and that we are capable and strong enough to help them calm down and teach them new behaviors.
4. Fill that time with meeting his basic needs that help him calm down.
Help your child articulate what he needs in order to feel better before returning to the behavioral issue. Use the acronym HALTS (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Sick/Scared/Shamed a.k.a. embarrassed) to help your little Johnny give language to his needs. Some might actually call this type of interaction a time in – time in company with a loving adult who helps the child to emotionally regulate.
5. Time out is about proximity and distance between you and your child.
Think of it like a dance. If your child is able to be in close proximity to you calmly, then you should be able to resolve an issue with words, absolving the need for a pause (time out). If your child has become verbally aggressive or overstimulated to the point of physical aggression, he might need some distance. Taking a break gives everyone a chance to hit the internal reset button. The ultimate goal is to get back to connection. The most important part is the tone of the interaction.
6. Mommies need time outs, too.
7. Before you use a time out to calm a child, there are other prosocial strategies to try.
Here’s a few: redirection (not distraction, but offering a more favorable alternative to getting a need met), humor (at the situation, not at the child’s expense), playful engagement (using your vocal tone, volume, and cadence to play a child out of an unwanted behavior), offering reasonable choices, compromising or asking for input from a child about a resolution, discussing the natural consequences that could come from his unwanted behavior. You can actually do these as a protocol in the above order, starting small and escalating with the refusal to be compliant with your expectations.
8. Don’t set a time duration or sentence.
When we think of time outs differently, the question, “How long should a time out last?” becomes irrelevant. In a marriage, if a spouse just walks out of the room and refuses to talk to the other, it’s ill-received because it suggests the leaver prefers to dismiss the issue and leave it unresolved. The partner who is left will often feel the other person’s leaving is a punishment, rejecting them, abandoning the issue, leaving them alone. A time out should be just time enough for someone to breathe, calm down and think about what need they want to express to the other. Then after an agreed upon “break,” a healthy partnership will return to one another to try again to reach resolve. It’s the same with children. We’re teaching our children the skills they will use someday in their marriage. A child who receives a length of time to sit in isolation might one day be a husband or wife that believes the silent treatment for a period of time is the appropriate way to express marital dissatisfaction. Help your child build healthy relationship skills now, and save the pain of learning how to communicate in adulthood.
Reader beware: The above could be misinterpreted as passive parenting. Consider that some alternatives to traditional time out require more interpersonal skills and attunement from parents than time out – and that’s far from passive!