Imagine this: You’ve had a tough day at work, your boss has been unreasonable, your colleague has been rude. You had a fight with your mom. You can’t wait to get home and tell your partner about your stressful day. You want them to listen to you, empathize, and offer comfort. Finally, it’s home time. Your partner calls: "Hey, how was your day?" In reply, you throw down your bag and let out a frustrated scream. Your partner rushes to you, and instead of the hug you’ve been hoping for, they yell, "How dare you throw your bag and scream at me! Get over there and stay there for five minutes. When the time’s up you can talk to me again."
How would you feel? You’re desperate to connect with your partner, yet they push you away. I’m guessing it wouldn’t make you feel good or motivate you to behave better. Now imagine how a kid feels when they’re put in timeout for losing their temper.
I believe that timeout is an ineffective discipline method because it ignores the feelings behind the behavior, doesn’t teach the kid how to do better, and instead teaches them that you only want to be with them when they’re feeling good. It also sends a subconscious message that they should withhold their true feelings from you. Perhaps most importantly, it causes a rift in your connection.
If you’re one of the growing number of parents questioning the effectiveness of popular discipline methods today, here are five alternatives to timeout that improve connection as well as behavior:
1. Reframe your expectations.
Many parents discipline their kids because they don’t have realistic expectations of child behavior. A toddler is as capable of stopping a tantrum as they are of driving a car. Their immature brain connectivity means that they don't have the awareness to calm down the same way adults can. A young child struggling with the transition of welcoming a new baby into the house isn’t being deliberately naughty; they are struggling with big feelings of grief and simply don’t have the verbal ability to put these feelings into words, so they are translated in their behavior. Kids aren’t mini adults. They can’t and don’t act like us. Lower the bar when it comes to your expectations of them, and understand that they don't have full control over their brains.
Most poor behavior is caused by the child feeling a lack of connection with their parents. A kid that is feeling unloved needs to be shown that he or she matters. You need to build up their self-esteem to make them feel better, but often sending them to timeout does the opposite. Time-in means being calm and sharing your calm with your kid. That doesn't mean you should be giving undue praise, of course. Say something like, "I don’t like what you did, but I love you, and I’m here to help you to calm down." Time-in means waiting for the storm to pass while keeping your child and others safe and then talking and/or hugging it out.
3. Role modeling.
The old saying, "Do as I say, not as I do" couldn’t be more wrong. Out of all the influences on your kid’s behavior, it's helpful to remember that you are by far the biggest one. If your kid yells too much, ask yourself where they may have picked it up. Chances are you need to control your own yelling. The best discipline of all is to be the person you want your children to be. If you want to raise calm, kind, and loving individuals, you must model these qualities yourself. If your kid is being particularly difficult, ask yourself if you need to take some time to get your own behavior under control first.
4. Be creative.
When kids are angry or upset you need to give them time to calm down first, as nobody—regardless of age—listens when they’re in fight-or-flight mode. Once they’re calm, resist the temptation to give them a lecture. Instead use more creative ways that speak to children better. Sit down and compose a story together in which the main character is struggling with big emotions. Role play, acting out how they could have behaved and what they can do next time, or get them to draw or paint their emotions on paper.
5. Create a calm-down corner.
Making a calm-down sanctuary in your home pre-empts any difficult behavior. Choose a quiet spot and fill it with soft rugs, fluffy throws, fairy lights, aromatherapy oils, lava lamps, stress balls, soft toys, inspiring kids’ books and so on. Encourage your kid to go to this corner whenever he or she feels stressed or feels like they’re going to say or do something they know they will regret. This is also a great space to go to when you do time-in.
Gentle discipline takes time to see results, but it provides kids with emotional tools they can use for the rest of their lives. It builds connection, self-esteem, and happiness that has a positive effect not only on your kid but on you too—and the best way to raise calm, happy kids, is to start with calm, happy parents!
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Sarah Ockwell-Smith is the author of Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection—Not Punishment—to Raise Confident, Capable Kids (TarcherPerigee) and a highly regarded parenting expert whose work and expertise has been featured in major media including BBC News Magazine, WebMD, BuzzFeed, as well as national television and radio. She has a BSc in psychology, is a member of the British Sleep Society, and has also undertaken training in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy. Sarah specializes in gentle parenting methods as well as the science and psychology of parenting. She is co-founder of the GentleParenting website and writes a popular parenting blog at sarahockwell-smith.com. She lives in the United Kingdom and is a mother of four.