Using Time Outs To Help With Emotional Regulation
Have you tried to manage your child’s behavior with time outs? Has it worked? Do you feel guilty about it? Is it because you’ve read articles that advocate against the use of time outs as a behavior management tool? If you are confused by all the information you’ve received about time outs, you’re not alone.
I think it’s no secret that with the rise of Gentle Parenting, time outs have fallen out of favor. The way Gentle Parenting advocates think about time outs is that they isolate the child, make them feel like their emotions are too much for a parent to handle, and are just a way to punish. Gentle Parenting believers subscribe to the “No reward, no punishment” type of parenting. They emphasize connection with the parent as the main driver for behavior.
Based on all my knowledge in the psychology field, not only is this opinion misguided, but it’s also shaming to the parents who have children with difficult temperaments or developmental disorders. It reminds me of the term Refrigerator Mother coined back in the 1940s to describe mothers of Autistic children. Back then child psychology specialists thought that cold and rejecting mothers caused their children to develop Autism. Luckily, we now know that it’s completely untrue.
What also doesn’t make any sense is that Gentle Parenting often encourages parents to take a time out. And it’s because parents are humans that lose their cool and need time to collect themselves in a stressful situation. But the same isn’t encouraged for the kids.
But if a time out really is a punishment that leads to isolation and shame about emotions, why would we encourage parents to take them?
It doesn’t really make sense. But it does point to a simple thing: if a time out is done incorrectly, it can easily become a punishment, but if it’s done with its intended purpose in mind (to cool off and collect oneself) it’s a wonderful tool to teach emotional regulation. (For more discussion on this topic, you can look at this article by Child Mind Institute.
Why I’m a Fan of Using Time Outs To Help With Emotional Regulation
I think by now you see that I’m a proponent of using a time out as a tool to help an overstimulated child to cool off. I’m not a proponent to use is as a form of punishment for a misbehavior (though research supports that as an effective tool for behavior management). And a time out is great for both the parent and child to take. Because during a tantrum you are likely losing your cool as well. I know, I do.
You see, I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. While I do have better self-control than my children (thank you fully developed prefrontal cortex), I get heated and out of control at an alarming clip nonetheless. So, both my son and I need a time out, in order not to descend into a dark spiral of an all out meltdown for both of us. (Notice I said, son not sons. And that’s not an accident. We do not practice time outs for our 20 months old because he’s simply too young to really understand it. We redirect his behavior instead. )
As I am a Highly Sensitive Person, my son is a Highly Sensitive (Spirited) Child. It means that the whole house is at the mercy of his intense and volatile emotions. We never know who is waking up in the morning – is it going to be sunshine and clear blue skies or did a dark stormy cloud emerge from his bed?
Unfortunately, we have a lot of dark stormy cloud days and they are difficult for everyone. I’m 100% sure that my son does not enjoy being angry and upset but what can you do. You can’t change someone’s temperament, but you can teach them to work with it. And work with it we have. And one of the best ways to work with his temperament has been the implementation of time outs. It’s been a blessing for everyone.
One other point I want to make: his impulsivity and outbursts are also common for someone with ADHD or Autism. So, you can absolutely use my tips to work with your child, if they have a developmental disorder. Honestly, the line between High Sensitivity and a developmental disorder is a thin one.
Time Outs Have Fallen Out of Favor Because of Their Awful Execution
Before I share with you how we successfully implement timeouts with our son, I want to address why, I think, time outs have fallen out of favor. Time outs have been a favorite of many authoritarian parents. They’ve been used to punish all sorts of behavior. But I don’t think it’s the time out itself that caused damage to any of the children. It’s the implementation of the time out that led to poor results.
Typically, an angry parent would put a kid into a time out. As the parent escorts them into a time out, they could be yelling, shaming, or physically assaulting the child. Then they would close them in a room, slam the door, and walk away in a puff. Leaving a confused and often scared kid behind. Then after some time, the parent would come back, open the door and start with “What have you learned while you were here?” And often a lecture about improper behavior would follow. A lecture filled with shame and anger.
And do you honestly think the child was thinking about their bad behavior while in time out? The answer would be – No. But the child was feeling angry, sad, scared and thinking that they are a bad kid.
So, you see, the time out is not the isolating part. It’s the parent’s anger and shaming that is. There is no better way to ensure your child feels disconnected from you, then to shame them for their behavior. And the shaming and lecturing afterwards, doesn’t help the whole experience either. In some ways, the time out is a refuge from the terrifying parental anger. And the younger the child, the more terrifying the anger feels. Because they still feel so connected to us and they don’t want to see us angry, especially at them.
Let’s just say that implementing time outs in this fashion is not a good parenting strategy. It doesn’t lead to better behavior. It leads to fear, disconnectedness, and anxiety. So don’t do it.
But If You Do Time Outs the Right Way – It’s Much Easier to Manage Your Child’s Behavior And Help With Emotional Regulation
Now that we’ve discussed the wrong way to do a time out, let’s talk about the right way to do one.
First let me reiterate that we don’t use a time out as a way to punish a behavior! That’s what consequences are for (things like loss of media time, not doing a particular fun activity, not having access to a fun toy, etc). And that is the key to it working. The point of the time out is to let the offending child cool off, and be away from a highly arousing stimulus (like hitting his brother on the head). It is a safe place to help regulate emotions and return to baseline.
There are options to how you want to do a time out depending on how aroused your child is. If you have an anxious or younger child, you may want to take them to a quiet room and stay with them. That’s what’s typically referred to as a Time In (but beware that while a Time In is seen as a gentler counter practice to a Time Out, there is no research out there on whether a Time In is actually effective).
As long as they’re not physically assaulting you during the time out, you are welcome to stay with them. Sit next to them, hold their hand, hug, stroke their hair, talk in a monotonous voice, breathe, do stretches. Whatever you want to help your child calm down. The only caveat to talking during this time out is that you are not allowed to talk about the behavior or why it was wrong. Save it for after the time out, when your child is less aroused.
What if Your Child is Physically Aggressive During a Time Out?
If your child (like mine) tends to get violent during a time out, you need to put them in a safe space away from you or anyone else. Put them in their room (make sure there is nothing unsafe in there), close the door, or put up a baby gate, and don’t be within striking distance. That last one is very important. If your child tends to physically lash out, as long as they can get to you, they will have a difficult time calming down. What’s worse, the more times you are assaulted, the less likely you are to stay calm, collected, and ready to receive your child once they are out of their frenzy.
Be prepared that the first few times your child may be raging for a long time (upwards of an hour or more), so it’s best to stay within ear shot and check in on them when you hear there is some calmness. Your child may trash their room or break things (that’s why it’s important that nothing dangerous or of value is in the room). It’s ok. Don’t pay much attention to it at first. You can help them clean up when they’re calm. But if you do this a few times, your child will stop resisting it so much, and will start finding a refuge in the time out.
Another option is to create a calm down corner or “cozey corner” somewhere in the house. (Find items we use for our calm down corner here). You may want to put some calming activities in there like stickers, a book, stress balls, putty, drawing activities, a soft pillow, a comfort object. Cover the corner with a sheet or use a tee-pee tent, so it creates a safe space away from stimulating objects.
My son’s school implemented the cozey corner with a lot of success. All the kids loved it, and it allowed them to learn and practice emotional regulation. And we all know that 3 year olds are not very good at emotional regulation.
More Time Out Tips
I hope I’ve given you a better understanding of how to use a time out as a successful behavior management and emotional regulation tool. Your main takeaway should be – A Time Out is Not a Punishment! It’s an opportunity to calm down, regulate emotions, and take a break.
Most of our kids’ misbehaviors are not malicious in nature and just stem from their prefrontal cortex not being fully developed yet (If you want to learn more about your child’s brain development and how it affects their behavior read Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old). So, a cool down period is often all that’s needed to get them back out playing and behaving in a more appropriate way.
Don’t start time outs too early. Locking a 2 year old away in a room will not lead to anything except a lot of frustration on your and your child’s part. Your toddler age children (1-3 years old) would benefit more from a redirection to a more appropriate activity and a hug. It works much better than trying to make them sit somewhere, even with you, in order to calm down.
Once your child is older than 3, then they’re old enough to understand time outs as a place to cool off. But don’t overuse them. Use time outs sparingly and appropriately. They’ll actually work better that way.
Also, saying “I won’t let you hurt me”, while standing there and getting kicked is completely useless. But saying those words while on the other side of a baby gate, show that you are holding your boundary and will not let anyone hurt you.
You can be nearby, if it works, and try a guided breathing exercise or singing a song. The goal isn’t to leave your child completely alone with scary emotions. But sometimes the only way for your child to calm down is to fully let their emotions explode before collapsing and being ready to accept your comfort. That’s why, I recommend, that you are not far away when your child is in time out.
Don’t be afraid of putting your child in a time out. There is nothing wrong with it. Just don’t do it in anger. No shaming or physical punishments allowed. Remember that a time out is nothing more than a reset for everyone. (And if you don’t believe me, read this article by Dr. Dan Siegel about his clarification on his time out article in Time Magazine, which started this whole backlash against time outs). When you resume your activities after a time out, it’s like nothing happened. Use the time to collect yourself, breathe, and calm down.