Time-in is a coping skill used by therapists to teach children how to regulate (aka deal with) difficult emotions. Before we get into the details, let’s review some of the reasons that time out might not be working for you.
Reasons Time-Out Might Not Be Working
- My child will not stay in time out– This is especially true of children that have been abused or neglected or who have experienced a traumatic event in their lives.
- Time-out sometimes escalates the behavior in a way that becomes unsafe (the child starts hurting themselves or destroying property).
- Time-out doesn’t always change the behavior. Parents who are using time out correctly and consistently might still find that they are putting their child in time out over and over throughout the same day without seeing any noticeable change in the behaviors.
Using Time-In As An Alternative
Time-in is a developmentally sensitive alternative to time-out and has been recommended by clinicians more frequently in the past decade as more research about the brain has been conducted.
Daniel Siegel talks a lot about this in his books. He also has a great video about what happens to the brain when a child gets upset that you can see here. He explains the concept of “Flipping Your Lid” when a child gets frustrated from a neurobiological perspective.
Why Time-Out Can Be Bad For Relationships
Children communicate with behavior. When a child is acting out, they are communicating a need to us. In this moment, think of it as an SOS signal. When we respond with a time-out we are essentially saying, “go away” and deal with this on your own.
From the child’s point of view, it is abandonment during a time of crisis. For traumatized children, it is proof that they are unloving or bad. And so, they act out even more to either show you how much of a struggle this is or to further reinforce the point that they are bad.
The Message of a Time-In
Time-in sends a message, that when you are in distress, “come to me and I will help you.” The parent holds the child (if possible) or at least stays close to the child.
*Note, this is not a form of restraint! Holding the child is not required. It can be helpful with toddlers to hold them in your lap. For older children, just remaining nearby is enough.
During this time, they can model coping skills like deep breathing or provide a sensory input (something the child can do with their hands) to help calm them down.
Ever heard that story “Footprints”? I am not a Christian Counselor, but the message is the same. “It was then that I carried you.” During times of distress and crisis, for a parent to remain very close to a child and walk them through the coping skill is much more effective than sending them away until they have corrected the behavior on their own.
What If A Child Doesn’t Want A Time-In?
Sometimes, the child doesn’t really want physical affection or contact. Sometimes they will even reject verbal interactions. Just remain close by and make a statement that says, “I am concerned about you so I am going to stay close by until you are feeling better.” And then be quiet, breathe, and wait.
Avoid direct eye contact if it does not seem to be helpful. There is nothing worse than being stared at when you are angry. You might even do a trivial task like fold laundry. Just make sure the child is close to you or you are close to them. When they have calmed down, then you can engage the thinking part of their brain and talk about what happened. But not until they are ready.
Why Time-In Works
This is a new concept for a lot of people. Most people feel compelled to discipline the negative behavior. Consider instead, that this may be an opportunity to TEACH a new skill. The therapy term for that skill is called REGULATION.
If a child can get angry and then regulate their way out of it, they will require less discipline. They will engage the thinking part of their brain faster and more often and have fewer meltdowns.
But you have to teach this skill.
And to teach it, you have to be able to do it yourself. So that means not responding to behavior in anger and not yelling and screaming. It means responding in a neutral tone and offering a way out of a crisis.