When my son was a tantrum-y (and somewhat aggressive) toddler/preschooler, we spent a lot of time enforcing the time-honored tradition of the time-out. Made extra popular by Supernanny Jo Frost, the time-out seemed like a bit of a last result — and honestly not terribly effective — but we found ourselves going to it over and over, at a loss for how else to correct behaviours that were very much not OK.
Eventually, the unacceptable behaviours eased up, which probably had more to do with him getting older and developing more communication skills than the amount of time spent staring in a corner. When my son got a little older, my husband and I became foster parents; by the time our first foster son was placed with us at age 3, we had learned about something that we found to be not only more effective but also much more positive in nature: The time-in.
Time-Outs vs. Time-Ins
The main difference between a time-out and a time-in is that instead of removing from the child from the family to sit in another room, in a corner or on a step by themselves, you sit with the child and speak to them calmly and softly about their feelings and behaviours as they regulate their emotions.
Parenting coach and therapist Bonnie Compton tells The Washington Post that this method avoids the feelings of abandonment and isolation that often accompany a time-out.
“There is loss of contact, which can also be interpreted as loss of a parent’s love, especially for younger children. Kids who are sent to their room often believe their isolation is a result of being bad enough that parents do not want to be around them.”
This can be particularly risky for kids who have a predisposition to anxiety, Compton adds. The isolation may increase their fears, and the more anxious they become, the more likely they may be to exhibit behavioural outbursts, such as destroying their toys or room during a timeout.
Plus, time-outs might not be teaching the message you’re trying to impart anyway. As pediatrician Nadia Sabri says in the Post article:
“Emotional modulation and regulation occurs with development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which doesn’t fully develop until adolescence.”
This means putting a child by themselves in a timeout situation and telling them to think about what they’ve done is generally a waste of time. “If you ask the child why they are in timeout, they usually say ‘I don’t know.’”
Here’s how you do it
Sue Lively, an elementary school teacher and parent who writes about positive parenting, lays out a great — and detailed — step-by-step approach to using the time-in method.
First, you take a deep breath or two (you’re trying to talk calmly and positively at a time when you’re probably feeling pretty frustrated, after all). Then, you move yourself and the child to a neutral location, such as the couch or the dining room table. Look for the underlying need behind the misbehavior and acknowledge that need and their feelings.
Here’s how that might sound in Sue’s house:
You could say something as simple as, “You seem really ANGRY about…” or “You look so FRUSTRATED right now.”
Sometimes I add something like, “What’s the REAL problem here?” to get my son to begin talking.
Then the key is to listen to what the child has to say without denying the feelings, or trying to minimise them.
As the child vents, and you listen effectively, the emotions slowly begin to dissipate.
Tears are a good sign that the emotions are being released. Hugs are always helpful too if the child is ready for that.
Finally, you talk about why the behaviour is unacceptable and how they can make amends, if necessary.
One more tip: When my foster son would start tantruming, he needed me to stay close to him until he was able to calm down. Until he was fairly calm, though, he couldn’t hear my words. I found that giving him a kitchen timer to hold helped him because he could focus on the ticking sound while he took deep breaths. I’d set it for a few minutes and by the time it dinged, he was usually calm enough to talk about what was happening.
For extra positivity, I bought this cute owl timer for the task.