“That’s it! Go to your room! I don’t want to see you for the rest of the day!”
“You go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done!”
“If you don’t stop it right now, you’re going in time out!”
Do any of these phrases sound familiar? I can tell you they’ve been uttered (okay, not uttered, YELLED) hundreds, if not thousands of times at our house. For years, we utilized time-outs as the primary source of discipline with our kids. However, with my time and experience, I’ve started to question the effectiveness of time-outs as a discipline technique.
What I’ve discovered is that with my kids, time-outs often lead to more power struggles, increased shame, and lack of trust. In addition, two of my children have attachment and abandonment issues related to their foster care/adoption experiences. When isolation is used as a discipline technique, it only exacerbates their negative behavior. While time-outs may be effective for some children, I’ve found that for my kids a technique called time-in has been a more effective discipline strategy.
What’s a Time-In?
Time-Ins are similar to time-outs in that a child can be moved to a designated “safe spot” when a meltdown or misbehavior occurs. The main difference is that an adult sits with the child instead of leaving the child alone. The time-in technique provides an opportunity to talk with the child about their behavior. It also allows them to process the big feelings that often trigger temper tantrums. Time-ins can help adults guide children on how to pause and reflect on their behavior. When used appropriately, time-ins can build crucial trust with children and their parents/caregivers.
In our experience, time-ins have helped us get to the root of our kids’ negative behavior in a more efficient way. Kids rarely misbehave “just because.” Growing up is hard work. Our kids’ brains are processing so much, and it can be easy for their senses to get overwhelmed. Often their intense feelings clash with external expectations, and the result can be an expression of big, scary feelings.
Whether it manifests in a full on meltdown or misbehavior, most of the time what the child is seeking is comfort and/or help navigating their feelings.
It’s worth noting that big, complicated emotions aren’t just limited to younger kids. I hate to break it to parents of toddlers and preschoolers, but your days of managing tantrums are far from over. Tweens and teens throw tantrums too, they just look and sound different (except sometimes they don’t!). Older kids need just as much comfort from their parents as their younger counterparts. Utilizing the time-in technique becomes even more crucial at this age and stage. Older kids are capable of higher levels of understanding, which allows the processing to be more effective. In addition, it’s vital that tweens and teens know they can trust the adults in their lives to listen and respond to negative situations in an unconditional way.
To be clear, utilizing time-ins isn’t a way to let kids off the hook for bad behavior. In fact, in some cases, sitting and processing a situation with our older kids has helped them understand and accept the consequences of their behavior. Talking through and reflecting on the situation has decreased the amount of arguing when we do issue a consequence.
How To Try a Time-In
The primary difference between a time-out and a time-in is the lack of isolation. You can also designate a “calm down” spot and provide soothing activities, but the most important thing is to stay with your child and help them. With our four-year-old, we have a spot on the steps where we go and sit together. With our older kids, we do send them to their room for an initial calm-down period, but after a few minutes we go and talk to them.
Even though time-ins are considered a positive parenting technique, this doesn’t mean things are warm and fuzzy. Our older kids still hurl insults our way. Our preschooler still hits and kicks us. But utilizing time-ins has helped our kids understand that we’re there for them unconditionally, no matter how they behave.