Why Time-0uts Don’t Work and What you can do Instead

So you’re over the toddler tantrums, the meltdowns and teenage mood swings and would like to find alternatives to punishment and time-out, but are not sure where to turn. You have realised that these approaches don’t work, and are often make things even worse, but are unsure what else to try.

Rest assured, there are other, more compassionate ways of changing behaviours that work even better. Lifelong change can actually be achieved simply by being emotionally present with your child in their distress, and attuning to their needs.

In the past, challenging behaviours were considered “naughty” or “attention seeking”. Well-meaning adults believed that children needed to be controlled in order to “learn” how to behave.

Instead of a time-out, how about a time-in?

Changing Patterns from the Past

It was often considered “normal” to “teach” better behaviour through forms of punishment, such as a time-out room, a naughty corner,  smacking or hitting the child, or withdrawal of privilege. We now know that these strategies of control often have the exact opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve.

We Learn through Relationship and Connection

Today, brain research has shown us that, rather than punishment and control, children learn better through close relationships and connection. The current view is to offer effective alternatives to time-out for children, based on compassion and understanding. 

In fact, a time-out is the last thing they really need. Their emotional brain has hijacked their thinking brain, and they need to be able to depend on us as plan B. We do this by tuning in rather than turning them away.

This doesn’t mean that past parenting was wrong, simply that we are evolving as humans, and there will always be new research, and new learning to embrace.

A New Perspective to Time-out – How about a Time-in?

I offer a new way of seeing behaviours, as your child’s way of trying to communicate. Once you learn to read these signals, life can become so much easier. My aim is to help you to build closer relationships, based on understanding and connection, as the basis for all future relationships throughout life. 

Rather than punishing your child, another, more effective way to address behaviours is to bring your child closer. Isn’t this what you really want to do, anyway? Your inbuilt intuition is telling you they are struggling, but perhaps your past conditioning is confusing you, and you are seeing their behaviour as “bad”.

Sadly, the punishments of former times rarely taught a child anything positive. If anything, they were more likely to result in a power struggle, with no winners. Misunderstanding the carer’s intention, the risk was that children misinterpreted the message, believing that they were bad, that there was something wrong with them. 

The undesired  result was reduced confidence and self esteem, with the risk of the child feeling abandoned and unloved.

Children’s Behaviours Are Impulsive

Current brain science recognises these behaviours are impulsive, and happen outside conscious awareness. Your child’s outburst is not planned or thought out and the response needs to acknowledge this. Punishment is meaningless when the child has has no idea what has just happened.

Something has triggered their nervous system, and their response was automatic. Feeling stressed, their thinking brain has gone offline, and they are reacting from much lower, reactive part in their brain. The child needs help in understanding the behaviour, to learn resilience, and how to be with these strong emotions in the future.

Support your Child Through Co-Regulation

They learn this through co-regulation, that is, being with an emotionally regulated adult who is able to stay present and offer emotional support. When they are calm again, this is the time to talk through what happened, and discuss how you might be able to do things differently in the future.

Fortunately times have changed, and today we recognise that those frustrating behaviours usually indicate there is something you child needs. Your child needs you, and your caring presence.They need help to organise their feelings. 

Ask yourself “what might they need”  and  “what might they be feeling?” You will generally find they are feeling overwhelmed, and need support to regulate some overwhelming emotions.

Co-regulation is the key to creating a safe connection with your child, and this sense of safety is the the pathway to the thinking brain.

Feeling Stressed? Regulate Yourself First

Consider a parent time out – just taking yourself out of the situation for a moment can help you to feel more connected to your child and tune in to what they might be feeling or needing in the moment. This is unlikely to be wanting you to push them away or shut them in another room.

In parenting sessions, I usually help parents learn how to bring themselves back to “presence” through belly breathing. Slow exhalations can really help you to “breathe out” some of your own stress and tension.

It goes without saying that, if you feel you are about to “lose it”, it is important to make sure child is safe first. None of us will ever be perfect parents all of the time, so don’t beat yourself up. Before you react, take a moment to get down to their level, breathe and collect your thoughts. Your calm presence will help your child to calm. 

Recognise that your child is not the problem. They are probably not feeling safe and are reacting to something in their environment, and need help to organise their feelings. 

Alternatives to Punishments and Time-out

Bruce Perry, a pioneering neuroscientist, offers a simple way to help. As you know, trying to reason with someone who is having an emotional meltdown will only increase frustration all round. Nothing you say will get through to them.

He offers three steps for helping your overwhelmed child. 

1. Regulate – help your child to calm their fight/flight/freeze response

2. Relate – relate to and connect with your child through an attuned and sensitive relationship

3. Reason – then you can reason with your child, supporting  them to reflect on, and learn from, their experience

1. Regulate

Seven tips to help to regulate their behaviour include:

  • Imagine you are talking to a friend
  • Offering them a hug, 
  • Getting down to their level and making eye contact
  • Lowering your voice and using a gentle tone 
  • Holding them while they safely express their emotions, 
  • Offer a calm place where they can choose to go if they don’t want a hug, 
  • Draw how they are feeling – colours, shapes, images
2. Relate

Now you can connect to your child with a time-in

By “tuning in”  to their needs, your sensitive presence  is saying “I get you”, “I understand how you are feeling”. You can empathise by saying something like:

“Wow, it looks like that is really hard for you”

“You look really frustrated”

“I understand that you would like to (go to the park, watch tv) but right now it is dinner time”

Your child will feel reassured and safe through your connected presence. 

3. Reason

When everyone is calm, then you can talk about what happened. Now that your child’s “thinking brain” is back online,  you can help them to recognise their feelings, and talk about ways to react next time.

Circle of Security Parenting

Many parents have benefitted from doing the Circle of Security Parenting course with me.

This internationally recognised, relationship-based parenting program, offers support for parents who would like to learn more about parenting. You will be able to understand the meaning behind your child’s behaviours and build closer relationships as a result.

The course is run over 8 weeks, with each class lasting from 1 to 1.5 hours. It is currently available for individuals and couples, with options of either face-to-face or online via zoom, from the privacy and convenience of your own home.

As one happy parent recently commented, “Every parent should do this course”.

The Next Step

If you would like to develop your parenting skills and write a new family story, I offer counselling support for parents to help you through this process. We can work together to define your parenting goals, and create the family life you are looking for.

Rather than labelling or diagnosing your child, I will help you to change behaviours by understanding the meaning behind them. To put it simply, “acting out”, is your child’s way of trying to communicate. My role is to help you to read the message.

The aim is to help you raise happy healthy children, who are able to realise their potential and find their place in the world

About Rosalind

Since 2005 I have been helping children with learning and behavioural challenges such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD and other sensory processing difficulties. I use an holistic, or whole child approach combining counselling with a development movement program, known as The Extra Lesson. This program addresses underlying immaturities in early development that are contributing to their learning and behavioural challenges. Sessions are available online and at Moruya South Head.

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