By Kelly Bartlett, CPDE, API Leader, Portland, Oregon
Thank you to Attachment Parenting International for contributing this article. Visit their site for more helpful information and resources.
In parenting, time-outs have an important and effective role. A time-out is a chance for children and parents to pause, regroup and collect themselves. Though time-outs are an often-used consequence for tantrums, outbursts or fits of anger, they are ineffective when used punitively. When a child is sent away to “go to time-out,” she not only learns that her emotions are unacceptable but that she must also learn how to deal with them by herself. Punitive time-outs tell a child: Your feelings are not OK.
Time-outs are most effective when they are about feeling better as opposed to being used as a “thinking tool” or a punishment. Rather, when they are used in a proactive way—much like those taken in sports games—time-outs teach a child acceptance and self-regulation of strong emotions and are a very effective discipline tool.
When emotions are running high, everyone needs time to calm down and feel better so that we can “improve our game.” Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time Out, advocates that children have very immature levels of brain development and need a lot of help in regulating their emotions.
“Where in the world did we get this crazy idea that in order for children to do better, first we have to make them feel worse?” Nelsen said. “Children do better when they feel better.”
She says that the way many time-outs are implemented only serve to make a child feel worse, ashamed or isolated when they could be opportunities to help children learn how to handle strong emotions.
Here are some steps you can take to ensure that time-outs are positive, helpful experiences for your child.
Talk about feelings. At a time when no one is currently distressed, talk to your child about moments when he’s been really upset. Let him know that everyone gets angry, sad and frustrated sometimes. Make sure your child knows that feelings are always OK. But some emotions sure don’t feel pleasant, and it helps to know what to do then.
Designate a feel-good spot. Ask your child’s input on where the two of you could create a “feel good” place. It might be in her room, on the couch in the living room or in another spot. To some children, going into a bedroom might seem too isolating and they would prefer to be able to see a parent, while other children might choose their room because it can keep out younger siblings. Whether it is a bedroom, bathroom or a spot in the kitchen, allow your child to choose an area that will be designated as her place to regroup and calm down. Have her create a name for this special spot.
Create a comfort basket. Certified positive discipline trainer Glenda Montgomery advocates the addition of a “comfort basket” in feel-good spots. “If a child has any special toy or stuffed animal that he likes to hold when he’s upset, definitely add it to the comfort basket.” Blankets, books and music are all excellent items to put in comfort baskets, as are lumps of clay to pound, exercise bands to stretch and squishy balls to squeeze. Older children may like to keep a journal or sketchbook in their basket or even a bottle of bubble bath to use. If you’re using a large area or a whole room as the feel-good spot, you could also include bigger items such as a punching bag or trampoline. The idea is to fill the area with items to help your child relieve stress and begin to calm down. Some children benefit from a physical outlet, while others prefer emotional outlets.
Ask about preferences. When your child gets emotionally overwhelmed and upset and it’s time to put the feel-good spot to use, ask if she would like to go by herself or if she’d like you to come, too. Children have different preferences for this; some kids may feel “banished” if they are expected to go alone and would feel more secure if you’re there supporting them, while others need to be left alone to decompress. It is important to respect their preferences and understand that these may change over the years.
Deborah Thompson, a mother of three and an administrator of an online parenting forum, finds that she is able to adapt the positive time-out techniques to each of her children in various situations.
“I have used the car, a bathroom, even an out-of-the-way spot in the grocery store when I’ve needed to take a cooling-down moment with my child,” she said.
Thompson also says that the most important element of positive time-out is the ability to focus on reconnection.
“Once my children have had some time to cool off, I always make sure I reconnect with them afterwards,” she said. That may be in the form of a loving, wordless hug, an empathic conversation or a cooperative activity like playing a board game or cooking together. It’s a gesture that tells your child, “You were mad, and that’s OK. I love you no matter how you feel.”
Teaching children to calm down after being in a highly aroused emotional state begins at birth. Arlene Raphael, author of Positive Discipline for Children With Special Needs, said, “Whenever a parent picks up a crying baby with the intent to help calm her, she is experiencing a positive time-out.”
Holding and comforting an upset child stimulates calm-inducing brain chemicals that help regulate emotions. As a child grows, he can become a more proactive participant in deciding how a time-out will look and feel. And parents can ensure that time-outs are truly in their child’s best interest if they ask for input, work together to understand everyone’s needs, remain flexible and keep in mind the big picture: that a time-out is just a way of helping a child feel better so he can do better.