“Time out just doesn’t work for my kid.” In a busy pediatric practice, I hear this at least once a week. Because no parenting strategy works for all children, it is probably true . . . some of the time.
But, maybe we are thinking about time out all wrong. Maybe time out isn’t only for the child. Maybe time out is for you too.
How can time out help the parent? It gives you a chance to de-escalate your emotions.
We all deal with conflict in different ways. Some of us withdraw, but some of us escalate. When a toddler is pushing your buttons, it’s hard not to let your emotions get to you at times.
Often, the time out follows a series of warnings and increased frustration and anxiety for both. (P.S. – Don’t do that. One or two warnings and then move forward. Your kid won’t believe you if you don’t follow through, and the extra time will just make the stress worse.)
Time out gives you a minute to take a deep breath, gather yourself, and put your frustration aside before you move forward with parenting. It gives you a chance to de-construct the situation.
Once you get your child settled in timeout, spend the early part thinking about the circumstances that led up to it. Transitions are particularly hard for toddlers, so think about ways you can help them learn to transition better. Sharing of toys and choices can also be tricky, especially with siblings.
Time out gives you time to reflect on the situation and develop future strategies for prevention or, if appropriate, how to redirect.
Time out gives you a chance to re-think consequences. I don’t recommend a long, drawn-out lecture following time out for most situations. The time out is the punishment. Start with a hug or another form of reconnection. Follow with a quick statement about what happened and how we can all do better next time (including admitting your own fault if there is any). There may be times when an ongoing consequence is in order. These should be creative and as specific to the problem as possible.
Time out gives you opportunity to decide if further consequences are necessary and, if so, what those consequences should be.
5 Tips to Make Time Out Work
1. Decide what warrants time out versus redirection prior to the offense.
2. Pick a place to do time out (helpful if it can be done anywhere — consider against the wall).
3. Limit stimuli during the time out (don’t answer fussing or questions).
4. Pick a time and use a timer (most use minutes = age or minutes = age + 1).
5. Re-engage quickly and keep the message brief and to the point.
Or, Try a Time-In
I’m sure it’s not a new thing, but something I’ve heard increasingly discussed in parenting circles is the “time-in.”
Think of time-in as the opposite of a time out. Instead of sending children to a spot to sit and think, bring them to you and have them sit near you or in your lap. Use the time to help them come to terms with their feelings or to help them put into words the strong emotions in their head they can’t quite express.
“It seems like you are upset because mommy told you it was time to put away the tablet. Sometimes people get upset when they don’t get their way. Would you like to turn it off, or would you like me to?”
It may sound cheesy to you at first, but parents who use the method swear by it. There is a strong element of physical touch and connectedness. You help the child work through his or her emotions and help him or her find resolution without the separation of time out. It takes patience and a high awareness and control of your own emotions, but for those who can manage it, it can be very effective.
Pick a Strategy and Try It, Consistently
One of the most important things about discipline is to pick a strategy and stick with it. Children respond well to structure and consistency above picking the perfect strategy.
Use time out strategically, including using the time to help you become a better parent. And if time out isn’t working, try a time-in.
Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children’s pediatrician in Lewisville. Read more from The Doc Smitty at www.checkupnewsroom.com. Dr. Smith attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joined Cook Children’s after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior, and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his three young children, exercising, reading, and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.