When I was the parent of a young child, I was a time-out junkie. I didn’t want to hit my son for his misbehavior and I didn’t want to yell at him, so I needed some tools to help me. Time-out seemed like a gentle alternative and it served me well as a positive step in my own parenting process.
However, in my family, it didn’t work. In fact, my son’s behaviors got worse. But I had no idea why and, worse yet, I had no idea what else to do. Most of the time, he wouldn’t even go into time-out. (Those were proud mommy moments, for sure…)
When he was about 4, I remember holding his door closed with him pulling as hard as he could to open the door and seeing the whites of his little eyes in the space between the door and the door frame.
I saw that he was scared.
It was that moment that I really began questioning why I was doing this and what else I could do.
Here are a few of the things I learned to begin to focus on the relationship in those moments when time-out would have been my go to. I’ve shared these with parents who come to me for support with great success.
- Keep everyone safe. If your child is running into traffic, stop him. If your 3 year-old is pummeling another child on the playground, move her away from the other child. Act swiftly in these kinds of situations. The rest, see number 2.
- Just pause. There are very few actual parenting emergencies. (See #1) Just taking a pause and a breath helped me to really look at what was happening. Sometimes in that moment, it became clear that he was tired, or hungry, or really ready to leave the park. Putting him in time-out wouldn’t solve those problems.
- Meet the needs. If your child is tired, hungry, or done with the park, leave the park, grab a snack, or take your child home for a rest. We help our children learn what they need when we observe their needs and name them for them, helping them to take care of their needs until they can consistently do it for themselves.
- Focus on regulation. While I used to believe that helping a child to think about he had done was the most important thing, I’ve come to understand that actually helping a child to regulate, or calm themselves in relationship, is the precursor to learning a new behavior. Much like our child needs to work on walking before they can learn to ride a bike, regulation comes before the thinking part.
- Recognize dysregulation and support the child. If your child seems to have a hard time often, consider sensory activities that encourage regulation (rocking, swinging, clapping games, deep pressure, quiet spaces, wheel barrow- where you hold the child’s legs and they walk on their hands…) before you go through a transition (like leaving the park). This helps your child to move back into a more regulated place and actually prevent struggles for many children.
- Consider a time-out for yourself. When we’re past our own limits, sometimes the best course of action is to model what you’d like your child to be able to do. Name it: “Mommy needs a break because she’s feeling really angry right now. I’m going into my room and I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” You’re taking responsibility for how you feel and you’re demonstrating what you can do that doesn’t hurt anyone. Your kids learn more from your actions than your words. (If your child is getting ready to light his trash can on fire, see suggestion #1.)
- Time-in. Pull your child in close when they’re having a hard time and breathe. Just make sure you’re regulated first. (See #2) You’ll be surprised how quickly this can work to calm everyone down, create more connection, and sometimes whatever was going on just evaporates. Much of the time, our children’s behaviors are just an indicator that they need more connection with us- even if it is to realize they have a physical need (they’re hungry) or they just need to be held because something was difficult for them.
- Teach appropriate behaviors later. We often worry about the important job of teaching our children appropriate behavior. We’re not done when we do any of the above things. Address the behaviors later, if you need to. The moment to teach a new behavior is later than we think: when everyone is calm. Later is a great time to practice what to do next time someone takes away their toy or help them understand that throwing is ok when it is outside or something soft, but throwing the remote control hurts.
What I didn’t understand when I was a young parent with young kids is that our children’s ability to learn depends on their ability to regulate in relationship. Those moments when our children are “misbehaving” are often the perfect opportunity for us to help them to learn to regulate. And regulated children are much less likely to have the same behavior problems later than children who are isolated in time-out. And as a bonus, those moments can actually help us to feel more connected.
Share your thoughts. Have you used any of these ideas with your kids? What happened?