Why This Child Psychologist Is Begging Parents To Rethink Timeouts
It was the typical morning chaos, trying to get the kids off to school and myself to work. I pulled out a cute enough outfit and called Eve to get changed. When she came in the room, she automatically stomped her foot, rolled her 4-year-old eyes the best she could, and threw her arms across her chest: "I want to pick out my own clothes. I hate you, Mom."
Had this been my first time at the parenting rodeo, I would have responded to the behavior and asked Eve to take a timeout—the parenting discipline method du jour. But, she has the benefit of being the youngest, which means I have been at this gig for nine years now, and I am a clinical psychologist with a special interest in parenting, so I read a lot about these things. My repertoire of interventions has grown immensely from the one-trick-pony days of timeouts for everything.
The timeout is a post-spanking phenomenon that came about as an alternative to corporal punishment. Pediatricians regularly pushed parents to withhold the whack and send the kid to his room. Yes, a great leap forward, but unfortunately it can create more emotional distress and not shift the behavior. Sitting in a designated space that is distraction-free, uncomfortable, and for a set amount of time (i.e., a minute for each year of the child's age) is often not the best option. When the child is most out of control, scared, and emotionally vulnerable, we deprive our emotional support and banish them from the group? That's not right.
These days, timeouts are just one tool in a much deeper toolbox. In my home, I barely pull that option anymore, and if it is used, it is when being with a group is just too overwhelming. The adult version of this type of timeout is when you've had a blowout argument with your partner and both people are just too upset to have any kind of productive conversation. A pause has to happen to let the brain quiet down.
The modern-day timeout is not an expulsion and withdrawal of love and attention but rather a comfortable and safe space where the child can reset, breathe, and focus on something other than the upsetting event. It is an opportunity to teach and practice self-regulation. During this time, kids are encouraged to "belly breathe," write, or draw their anger or sadness. Once the amygdala is settled, the child can think about his/her behavior and process it with the caregiver. In our home and because I teach this to clients, we incorporate biofeedback. Our kids have an inexpensive pulse oximeter (on Amazon for $15 to $30), which shows their heart rate and oxygen level. They can see that belly breathing lowers their heart rate and feels better. It is a great way to introduce kids to self-regulation, a skill that will last a lifetime. Biofeedback is meditation with training wheels.
For all the parents who struggle with finding the best way to help their child deal with difficult emotion, think outside of the timeout and incorporate other options like counting 1-2-3, shifting the effect through humor or roughhousing (playfully tackling my kids works wonders for me), or plain old ignoring.
When a child needs to be in a quiet space to self-regulate, here are some tips.
Create a comfortable space.
Teach a self-regulation method for each kid.
One size doesn’t fit all. Some kids want to lie down and get cozy; other kids want to thrash. Some like breathing to a guided imagery exercise; others like biofeedback. The goal is to help them learn to notice their own change in states and learn that breathing quiets the system.
Help kids notice their own internal alarm system.
Ideally, you'll do this before it is a five-alarm situation (warm cheeks, upset belly, tightness in the chest). What do they need before the situation erupts?
Name the emotion.
Convey your empathy. I see how angry you are, and that is OK. This, too, will pass. Do you need a hug? Do you want to be left alone? Sometimes just sitting there and "doing your own thing" is what a child needs—to know you are close if he/she needs you.
Model good self-regulation.
When you are angry, say, "I am angry, and I need ____." Model taking space and good self-care. Demonstrate that emotions come and go, and they aren’t something to be scared of. Emotions are like storms. The rain comes and goes, and our job is to watch it and sit in it. The goal is to ride out the storm without creating secondary emotional damage.
Want more parenting tips from Bobbi Wegner? Here are 8 of her best tips for raising feminist boys.
Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine and adjunct lecturer teaching human development and psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has over a decade of experience treating adults, children, and families, focusing on minimizing the impact of stress on children, families, and parents. She also speaks to schools and organizations about the importance of managing stress and anxiety, how to shift the culture in which we parent, and what that actually means for parents and kids at home. She received her doctoral degree in psychology from William James College.