You know the scene. You’re trying to get your screaming, kicking child to sit in the time-out chair, and he’s not cooperating. He gets up every 3 seconds, so you have to keep wrangling him into the chair. Time restarts because he got up again. Three minutes end up lasting 20. He’s crying, and you’re about to cry…or scream…or give up entirely and go for a glass of wine. Time-outs can be a huge power struggle, especially if you have a strong-willed kid. They’re hard on sensitive kids, too. Most of the time, they don’t even work to change behavior and you end up stuck in an endless loop of misbehavior, time-outs, and frustration. Nothing sucks the joy out of parenting quite like everyday power struggles.
The good news is that there is an alternative that many parents, myself included, find to be much more effective. To understand how to implement time-in, you first need to understand why this approach makes sense. Read The Brain Science that Changes Parenting for a more comprehensive post on the “why” behind this time-out alternative. To summarize for the purpose of this article, the brain, to greatly simplify, can be divided into two main parts which Dr. Tina Payne-Bryson and Dr. Daniel Siegel refer to as the “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain.” Upstairs is where higher reasoning, logical thinking, empathy, regulating emotions, morality, and more are housed. Downstairs is primitive and reactive.
“We want to engage the higher parts that can help override the lower, reactive parts. Which part of the brain do you think punishment appeals to? Which part does being ignored appeal to? What about threatening? These parental behaviors all activate the reactive reptilian brain. They (Bryson and Siegel) call this “poking the lizard.” But, by demonstrating empathy and respect and engaging in problem-solving, you don’t communicate a threat, and the reptilian brain can relax its reactivity. This is why I moved from time-out (which my son perceived as a threat) to time-in, because I wanted to appeal to his upper brain, not continue lighting up their lower brain. It’s why I now engage both my children in problem-solving when a problem arises rather than punishing them.
When we consistently help a child to calm down and work with them to teach good decision-making, we are actually strengthening the neural connections in their upstairs brain.”
Using this knowledge, the first phase of time-in is to actually calm the child’s brain down. We want him to have access to his higher brain, and that can’t happen until he’s unlocked from the reactive lower brain, and when he’s alarmed, he’s reactive. Social isolation or the threat of social isolation causes alarm. By approaching your child with empathy, calmness, and gentleness (using your own higher brain) you will appeal to his higher brain. Mirror neurons at work! So, you will approach the child using your mature higher brain and invite him into your lap into a safe space with you. In this space, it’s a good idea to have several different calming tools for your child, such as a calm-down jar, books, crayons and paper, etc. However, if you aren’t at home, or you haven’t get set up such as space, your loving arms is certainly good enough.
This first phase does two things. First, it removes the child from the situation or interrupts the problem behavior. That’s the same thing a traditional time-out does, right? It communicates “stop, this isn’t acceptable.” Time-in goes a step further here because rather than leaving the child in a corner or chair, you are now going to help him grow a better brain and learn more acceptable behavior.
But wait, you say! Isn’t this a reward? Read Does Time-In Reward Children?
Once you have him calmed down (I use “him” often because I raise boys and it’s sort of the default setting in my brain) you move on to phase 2 by appealing to his higher brain. You do this by asking questions. “Do you see Sophie’s face? She looks sad because you pinched her. I wonder how we can help her feel better?” Don’t try this until he’s calm because it just won’t work. Let him offer suggestions on how to right his wrong. This is teaching him problem-solving skills and placing the responsibility of reparation on him. He’s learning that he needs to fix the problem he created. If he can’t come up with anything, then you can offer suggestions. “Do you think saying I’m sorry will help? Yes? Okay, we’ll go do that, but the next time you get upset with a friend, you can either say ‘I’m mad right now’ and walk away or you can take 3 big dinosaur breaths. Let’s practice those dinosaur breaths. Good. Let’s go apologize now.”
Time-out = Child learns a behavior is unacceptable and sits in a corner for 3 minutes.
Time-in= Child learns a behavior is unacceptable, learns self-regulation skills, takes responsibility for the behavior, and learns acceptable ways to handle a situation. Plus his connection with you isn’t broken, and he isn’t left feeling bad about himself.
But What If…
- My child is having a tantrum and is hitting me or screaming? If your calm demeanor, tone, and words do not soothe your child enough to be brought into your lap or a safe space, then you can move the child to safe place and stand back. The key is to remain emotionally and physically available rather than just ignoring. “I won’t let you hit me so I’m going to stand over here to keep myself safe, but when you’re ready for a hug, I’ll be right here.” Some kids need a bit of space to work it out, and that’s perfectly okay. The difference is respecting the need for space versus forcing it.
- My child refuses to sit in time-in? If you truly make this a calming space and a connecting time, your child will have little reason to resist a time-in. It may take a few tries for them to trust it, especially if they’re used to time-outs, but keep trying. You can use a gentle bear hug hold while you rock and sing softly or speak gently to help calm your child down. You might say, “You can either sit in on this pillow or stand right here and jump up and down. Which do you choose?” For some kids, movement helps them calm down faster. You’ll know what your kid needs. As long as they reach emotional regulation and go through the process of making amends and learning better skills, it matters little how you get there.
- My child won’t offer any ideas during the problem-solving phase? If they are cooperative but can’t really think of anything, go ahead and pitch some ideas. If they’re outright refusing to cooperate, they haven’t calmed enough. “We will stay here until you’re ready” or “It looks like you’re having a hard time getting calmed down. It’s time to leave (or nap).”
- I have other kids to take care of and I can’t sit in time-in? If at all possible, try to give your child at least a few minutes of your time because if she’s acting out, she really needs your help. Once you get the hang of time-in and she knows the drill, you can leave her in the calm down space while you attend to the other children and then go back for the teaching/problem-solving phase when she is ready.
- I’m not at home? I’ve had time-in at the grocery store in aisle 5 and in a parking lot of a restaurant. You might consider putting a calm down travel bag in your purse for this purpose. Where ever you can have a bit of privacy works just fine.