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Time Out!

A “Time Out” typically happens when a child is having a big feeling (anger, sadness, frustration) with big behaviors (hitting, screaming, throwing). The parent usually says something like, “go to your room (corner, chair, bench) until you are calm.” Sometimes it’s a specific number of minutes, sometimes it’s a specific place, sometimes it’s up the parent when it’s over.

Time Outs are supposed to be better than spankings. Parents are showing they are in charge without inflicting any physical pain on the child and it doesn’t put the child in a bind where the parent is both the source of pain and the source of comfort.

Time Outs can also be effective in that it allows us, as parents, some time to calm down. Most of us have found ourselves in a standoff of consequences that has reached a point in which the child is punished for much longer than is actually possible for us to maintain! When we can take the Time Out to get calm, we are less likely to get ourselves into this situation.

However, we are living in a time when there is a renewed focus on the brain and how it develops. New information about the brain may have you re-thinking Time Outs….

1. Self-soothing requires a sophisticated brain.
There has long been this idea that children need to learn to self-sooth at an early age. Self-soothing is a very important skill set and it does begin in the early months and years of life. However, the ability to self-sooth, especially when very upset, can only occur in an older, mature, sophisticated brain. Infants and children are not able to regulate big emotions on their own – they learn to do it with you. When you hold your child, your regulated breathing and heartbeat begins to calm your child. With access to you, your child’s brain slows down the release of stress hormones and instead releases connection hormones. As you do this hundreds and thousands of times, your child’s brain will anticipate your comfort and just seeing you or thinking of you starts that soothing/calming process. Eventually, a child will be able to self-sooth (at least some of the time) because you soothed them so often.

2. Your child only has access to their own level of wisdom.
When any of us are very upset, our brains switch to only looking for safety. The part of the brain in charge of safety (the amygdala) becomes focused on fighting off or getting away from the unsafe thing. When your child gets this upset, your child has lost all ability to have wisdom about anything. At that moment, their brain doesn’t care about learning, or logic, or consequences because those parts of the wise brain (the frontal lobe) aren’t in charge or making the decisions.

Your brain, however, has had many moments of being able to re-tune into your wise brain in the face of something difficult. You have a fully developed frontal lobe that has had countless moments of predicting consequences, being flexible, calming down, being persistent, using logic and staying connected. Our children don’t. They learn from watching us do it. If they are pushed away from you during this important work, the only level of wisdom they will have access to is their own (which isn’t much).

3. They are learning to be angry at themselves or at you.
Usually, we put our children in a Time Out because we want it to be a calming and learning experience. But children’s brains are not actually able to connect the dots in the way we wish they could. This logical thinking requires a calm, integrated brain that has practiced this skill many times over. A child with a big feeling or out of control behavior will still be lashing out, even if they are quieter about it.

Truth be told, when a child is in trouble or has out of control behavior and they are sent off to their rooms or the corner, they are not thinking about the actions that got them there. More likely, they are thinking, “my mom is mean” or “my dad is stupid”. Or they might be thinking “I’m stupid” or “I’m bad”. Blame and shame tend to lead us only into unhealthy choices.

So are there any other options? Yes, of course!

Many attachment researchers are embracing the idea of a Time In. There are three steps to a Time In.

1. Time Out for the Parent (if it’s needed).

If you are not in a place of Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind, then find a safe place for your child to go until you are. If they are smaller, put them in their room or bed. If they are older, you could go into another room. Soothe yourself.

2. Find your child and get as close to them as they will let you.

Your child may still be upset and if they are still feeling unsafe, they may not let you get too close right away. Stay as close as they seem comfortable with and as they calm down, then move a little closer. Eventually, sit with them or let them cuddle on your lap. Offer your wise, calm brain and your warm, caring connection.

3. Repair.

When you are both calm, let them talk to you about what happened for them. You may be surprised how insightful children can be. In as few words as possible, let them know what happened for you. Model apologies to them (if applicable – and so often it will be applicable!) and acknowledge your role in what went wrong. If needed, discuss consequences. Give your child a chance to come up with an option to “make things right” or give a choice of things that are acceptable to you.

Unconditional love is just that – it’s open to all conditions… all feelings, all thoughts all behaviors. When we put a child in a Time Out because they are feeling, thinking or doing something that we find unacceptable, we are also taking away some of our connection to them because of that feeling, thought or behavior. This could result in a child feeling as if our love is actually conditional on their attitude or behaviors, which would create many more problems.

Circle of Security Parenting helps us see the opportunities our children give us every day to Be With them all the way around the circle. It shows us how to support exploration and how to keep our arms open when our child is struggling in some way.

Using a Time In as another way to connect, teach and support your child will help your child develop in ways that promote security, tenderness, self-soothing and empathy. It will help your child’s brain develop in an environment of structure, patience, soothing and learning.

So, take a Time Out when you need it…. One just long enough for you to be able to turn back to your child with a welcoming, bring-it-on-because-we-can-get-through-this-together face. When you hang in there with your child, you are showing them how to hang in there with themselves.