Time Out From Time Out


So there you are one afternoon, at the end of your rope with an out-of-control three-year-old. You know you won’t spank him, and you have become mindful of avoiding shame-based measures, so what’s left? Is “Time Out” the answer?

At the risk of adding stress to already stressed-out parents, my answer is no. Time-outs were conceived as a more humane alternative to spanking, but the problem is, they land a blow to the brain and psyche rather than to the bottom.

Right at the moment when the child is overwhelmed by a flood of emotions he cannot manage, and he most needs the regulating presence — that is,close physical presence — of his attachment figure, he’s banished to his room or his “Naughty Chair” or his “Thinking Rug” or his [fill in the blank with any of a list of prettied-up names people have devised for this particular form of exile].

What a tantruming child (or, more helpful to think of him instead as a struggling child) most needs is time-in — that is, in secure, soothing arms, in the steadying, regulating sphere of your engaged presence. We have to outgrow this tired notion that a 3- or 4-year-old is manipulating us, and to hold him is a reward. NO!! At that age children truly don’t possess the neural equipment to construct such Machiavellian manipulations.

In fact, their tender neural equipment is in a period of sensitive development at this point and time-out is counter-productive in that regard: it deprives a child of regulation just when she needs it most! Isolation from you throws her system into protection mode, and erodes her trust in and relationship with her parent. After all the fussing is over and order is restored, the memory trace etched in her social brain is, When I’m having trouble, I’m on my own. This is not the foundation we’re striving to offer Generation Peace.

We wish for them the suite of healthy social and relational capacities of resilience — which includes being comfortable reaching out for help when needed. Let’s not extinguish that skill with our well-meaning attempts at positive discipline!

If Not Time-Out, then WHAT?

Consider using a time-out in the way it was originally conceived in sports: for a whole team, not just one struggling player (well, except for ice hockey, but you get the point). It’s about, “Let’s all take a pause to regroup, rethink our approach, and return refreshed.” Used in this “us-as-a-team” manner — “Let us take a time out” — it is a demonstration that while you’re not happy with the way things are going or the choices he has just made, you are on your child’s side in this challenging moment — and always.

You can find your own name and style for this regrouping process; in psychologist Lawrence Cohen’s family it’s “A Meeting on the Couch”:

Discipline is a chance to improve your connection with your children instead of forming another wall that separates you. The best way to make discipline more connecting is to think ‘We’ have a problem instead of ‘My kid’ is misbehaving. Sometimes just changing the scene and making re-connection a top priority can create a dramatic difference, and the tension is gone as soon as you get to the couch, so you might end up just goofing around and being silly together.

The beauty of Cohen’s approach is that it offers a playful way out of that contracting spiral that is helpful and healing to everyone: “As long as we are grown up enough to handle things like keeping them safe and getting dinner on the table, our children want and need us to loosen up.”

How in the World Do We Lose the Stress and Loosen Up??!

The more calm and confident we can be as parents, the more our children “catch our calm” and things go much better all the way around.

Photo credit: Hollydc/Bigstock

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