Need a Time-Out from Time-Outs?

byKristin Swanson, Psy.D.

Envision this scene: Your 3-year-old son, Johnny, is playing quietly with his toy trucks when he innocently asks, “Can I have a cookie?” Your response is, “Not now sweetie, we are going to eat dinner in 15 minutes, maybe for dessert.” No problem. Johnny will continue playing quietly so you can finish your dinner preparation, and he’ll get to enjoy that yummy cookie after eating all of his veggies, right? Wrong.

A dramatic meltdown ensues. There is screaming and crying, toy trucks flying, hitting and kicking. To many parents, this behavior may seem to be an overreaction, irrational, and simply unacceptable. Often times, the advice received from parenting books, professionals, and fellow moms and dads points to the use of time-out. On paper, it makes sense; we remove the child from the situation that has triggered the negative behavior and give him space to calm himself down before returning. Theoretically, this sends the message that the behavior was not acceptable and once calm, he can return to the fun activities he was previously involved in.

But, what if Johnny can’t calm down? After mom guides Johnny over to his time-out chair, he continues to scream and cry. Mom sets the kitchen timer for 3 minutes, but after about 20 seconds, Johnny runs from the chair. Mom then becomes involved in a frustrating game of chase. When she is finally able to wrangle him back into the chair, Johnny continues to kick and scream. This power struggle continues for upwards of 30 minutes. Once mom has finally “succeeded” in implementing this time-out, her still puffy eyed, sniffling, 3-year-old is quieter, yet still appears distressed and has not bounced back to his typical cheerful affect – Has he really calmed down? It appears not… but wasn’t that the goal of the time-out? Many parents can glean from this picture that while the cookie battle may have ceased for the time being, another meltdown is likely in Johnny’s future, potentially followed by many more before finally drifting off to sleep.

There are many supporters of the standard time-out, and there are many children for whom this technique may be effective. However, for children like Johnny, it can be helpful to view this situation from a different angle. The ability to control one’s emotional or behavioral response within a given situation is called self-regulation and this ability is something that develops over time. For infants, this skill is not well developed and they rely on external sources of regulation, from their caring, attuned parents, such as being fed when hungry, changed when wet, or picked up when crying. As the adults around them continuously help to regulate and soothe them, babies begin to develop the ability to calm themselves when distressed. However, just like any new skill, practice and guidance is necessary.

Let’s compare the ability to self-regulate to another skill, such as riding a bike. While a child is learning and developing this skill, we don’t take off the training wheels, give the child a push, and walk away. We know this would be completely ineffective, and likely pretty frightening. We model, we teach, and we support, and with patience, that child is speeding off with confidence, pride, and greater independence.

Similar to the way we might coach our child to balance, steer, and push down on the pedals, we can support our little ones in the skill of self-regulation. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Remain calm. If we want our child to remain calm during times of distress it is important to model this behavior for him. Remember – when young children do not have the capacity to soothe themselves, they look for external sources for comfort – just like that newborn baby who yearns to be picked up when he cries. The first step to providing this comfort to our distressed child is to maintain our sense of calm.
  • Verbally acknowledge your child’s feelings. This not only helps your child to feel heard and understood, but also supports your child’s ability to express their feelings in a more effective, safe manner. For example, “You’re really frustrated you can’t have that cookie.”
  • Notice the specific behaviors your child is engaging in that let you know he is upset and needs to calm down. Noting certain behaviors that are not appropriate or safe further emphasizes the importance of finding ways to become calm. For example, “You’re really frustrated; you were yelling and kicking mommy. It is not OK to hit or kick, let’s try to calm your body, I’ll help you.”
  • Suggest different strategies your child can engage in to calm down. Modeling and practicing these strategies with your child will increase his investment in participating. Some examples of calming strategies include:
  • Taking deep breaths. Try “snake breathing” – breathe in through your nose and “hiss” out of your mouth when exhaling. See who can hiss the longest! Or, hold up your five fingers and pretend they are birthday candles. Have your little one take a nice deep breath in, and breathe out slowly as if trying to blow out a birthday candle. For each breath, lower one “candle” until he has blown out all 5.
    • Squeezing something. Tensing and relaxing muscles is helpful in calming the body. Ask your child to make a fist and squeeze it as hard as he can, and then release. Or, use a soft stress ball or other hand fidget toy that your child can squeeze.
    • Playing calming music. Use of soothing sounds or your child’s favorite music may help him to calm down, or simply distract him from the distress he is experiencing.
    • Dedicating a space in your home for these types of breaks. Come up with a name together, for example, “Calm corner.” You can fill this area with pillows, stuffed animals, or other comforting items. This area should not have a negative connotation, but rather be a safe place to go to calm down when his body gets too upset or excited.

While your child may not become a pro at calming down with these types of strategies immediately, remember that self-regulation is a skill, and something that develops over time. While a time-out is one framework for managing behavior, it may not teach the skills necessary to increase your child’s capacity for self-regulation, which can help decrease tantrum behavior in the future. Be patient, and remember that your child likely does not enjoy feeling distressed and out of control any more than you do. Just like your child learning to ride his bike, with support from you and a lot of practice, hopefully your child will speed off with pride and confidence, with greater independence to calm himself when distressed.