Have you used Time Outs with your child?
It’s a method approved by many parenting experts, including Supernanny, who refers to it as “the Naughty Corner.” I do love to watch Supernanny in action, with her words of advice and her stern reprimanding of parents who obviously don’t have a clue how to raise a child properly.
But then I remember how clueless I often felt as a mother, how issues and challenges with my child felt so different than other people’s children. I know there were times when Supernanny would have reprimanded me.
The Trouble With Time-Outs
Time outs always seem to work like magic when an expert uses them, but I don’t trust magic solutions, and I don’t think you should trust them either.
The problem with a time out imposed by a parent on a child is that the lesson learned by the child is often not what the parent intends. Here’s what I mean.
When you place your child in time out (for the number of minutes equal to the child’s age) they’re often yelling, screaming, and upset. You’re often upset. Your child is supposed to calm down while in time out, regret their poor choices and learn not to engage in that bad behavior again.
That’s a lot to ask for a very few minutes isolation. Many children don’t even begin to calm down during a 3-5 (or -8 or -10) minute period. Many children won’t stay in a time out, instead running around as they yell. How do you make them stay? By holding them down forcibly? That sounds unsafe and painful for everyone.
If they concede to staying in time out, what do they learn?
- They may learn that ‘Mom doesn’t like it when I do ___________, so I’d better do it when she’s not watching.’
- Or they may learn that ‘Mom doesn’t like me when I get angry, so I have to hide when I’m angry.”
Children don’t always learn the lesson we think they’re learning, or the lesson you think you’re teaching. The good thing about using a time out is that (done properly) it ends with a hug, but there’s often very little teaching or learning that’s involved.
If You Want to Teach, Then Teach
That’s why I prefer to teach a child how to ‘Take a Break’ when they’re upset or when they’ve behaved in a way that someone else has been, or is about to be, hurt. Big emotions often come out in a big way, with a young child hitting, yelling, or throwing things. Young children often feel like they ARE their emotions.
What you can teach your child is that
- Big emotions are okay – everyone has them
- Emotions come and go, they are not who you are, but
- what you do with that big emotion is a choice
Some choices won’t be appropriate or acceptable, like hitting or yelling names. But you can’t just tell them NOT to do something without giving them some choices that ARE acceptable. That’s where taking a break can be so helpful. It removes them from the situation where they could hurt someone and gives them a chance to self-calm so they can make a choice of an acceptable behavior.
How Do You ‘Take a Break?’
Time outs are so well-loved because they’re easy to implement. You remove the child, you place them in an isolated spot, then you leave and set the timer for the required time. But as I mentioned, you are not really teaching when you use a time-out.
The concept of ‘taking a break’ takes much more teaching, at times when everyone is calm and happy.
- You take a break when you’re upset and your body isn’t calm.
You have to teach what to do when you take a break.
- You can take 3 deep breaths, do some physical calming exercises to relax your body, etc. (there are many choices for what to do during a break)
You have to teach your child how to recognize what emotion they’re feeling so they can put a name to it and talk about it later when they’re calm.
- Using feeling charts or reading stories about different emotions can help here.
You have to teach how to know when your body is calm enough to return to the flow of the household.
- Pictures and body check-ins (depending on the age of the child) can be used when everyone is calm, and before a difficult situation occurs.
You have to teach that taking a break is not punishment, rather it’s a way to take care of yourself.
- One of the best ways to teach this is to model taking a break yourself when you’re upset.
When you pre-teach about taking a break and have materials that support the practice, children will start taking charge of their big feelings. They’ll start to self-calm and verbally express their feelings even while they’re in an upset state. But it can take a while. They may need your support in
- recognizing when they need a break
- Staying in a Break Spot you’ve created in your home
- And using the materials you’ve provided there for them
Taking a break isn’t punishment, while being placed in a time out is often perceived as one.
During a time out the child is placed in isolation.
During a break you might need to stay with your child.
- you might engage with your child and help them use the supporting materials.
- You might listen to them cry and put words to the feelings you think they’re expressing (‘You were upset that your brother took your toy, and you didn’t know how to get it back, so you hit him. When your body is calm we’ll figure out how to get your toy back in a kind way”).
- You might lead them through calming activities to help them get their bodies calm.
Teaching and using a Break is a process that can take quite a while, depending on the age of your child, their developmental level, their temperament and nature.
It’s not a quick fix, but it is a highly effective one. It works with very young children, as well as older ones. It even works for adults, like upset moms who model ‘taking a break’ for their children.
Yes, But Does ‘Taking a Break’ Really Work?
Even very young children or children with developmental delays can learn to take a break.
In my preschool classroom with children with developmental delays, we taught how to recognize emotions and what to do with that emotion with pictures and a catchy tune.
One of our students was mostly nonverbal, unlike his same age peers, but he loved the emotion song.
He would often get upset and would sometimes hurt other students or staff when he couldn’t express his needs or desires. It would take a long time before he was able to calm, and everyone was frustrated – especially him.
After learning about emotions (singing, using pictures of faces and singing about what you can do when you feel like the picture), he started to go over to the pictures and pointing at how he felt when he was upset. He did this without being helped. The staff would then verbalize for him what he was pointing to and would help him make an appropriate choice of what to do, including taking a break.
He no longer had to blow up because he felt angry, because he had another way to express himself and someone to help him manage his big feeling. Sometimes he needed to take a break, but his time in the Break Spot was short, since he had tools to help him self-calm. He was happier and everyone was safer.
A Lifelong Skill
That’s how to use a Break and why I believe it’s superior to using the Time Out technique. Learning how and when to take a break is a skill you can use as long as you live. I can think of many times I wish I’d taken a break instead of doing or saying something I came to regret!
Wouldn’t you like to give your child a tool as useful as this?
Next time I’ll show you what to put in a Break Spot and how to use visual aids to teach self-calming.
Stay safe, Be well!