Purpose of Time Out

I love time out. In fact I have been known to place myself in time out upon occasion.  Children and adults alike certainly have times when they feel overwhelmed and frustrated, and those feelings do not generally foster our clearest thinking or best behaviors.  We all need time to let those negative emotions dissipate before we can begin to solve problems or resolve issues.

While I honor our right and the right of our children to feel frustrated and angry the question is how do I want my child to deal with those feelings.  I would suggest that:

  • Taking a few minutes away from the situation that is causing the frustration may enable one to regain a more positive perspective.  Think of it as a version of the familiar advice, “count to ten (or perhaps 100) before responding”.
  • We can  help our children to begin to develop coping skills such as taking several deep breaths or endeavoring to view the situation from another perspective.  It is however important to remember that toddlers and preschoolers do not yet have the cognitive and emotional maturity to have mastered these skills so they will need patient and understanding adult guidance if this process is to be helpful.  When they have calmed down then it is possible to talk about other ways to get what they want without creating conflict.

Time out has traditionally been used as a punishment.  I have heard words from well-meaning teachers that convey a negative message about a child as they are being sent or taken to time out.  “What is wrong with you?  You just sit here until you can behave” are not words that will tend to reduce the anger and frustration or provide guidance toward more positive outcomes. Personal growth and insight does not customarily come from punishing and isolating children.  When we make a child sit in time out as a punishment often:

  • They feel misunderstood and over time can begin to see themselves as victims and therefore  not capable of protecting themselves
  • They feel they are perceived as ‘bad’ and eventually they can begin to define themselves as ‘bad’ and not look for positive solutions or behaviors
  • They think of themselves as incompetent, not able to get what they want without getting into trouble and can give up developing problem solving skills
  • They spend time planning their revenge as that seems to be the only alternative that comes to mind

What can we do using ‘time out’ as a positive tool to help children?

  • Make going to a comfortable and calming space an acceptable beginning step to resolving the problem–modeling is a great way for them to see this process
  • Wait to discuss the situation until your child is calm.  When he is calm and able to listen express understanding.  So  ”I understand/know how angry you were when she_____”.  Use words that honor and accept your child’s feelings
  • Choose your words carefully as judgmental or critical words can bring back and escalate the negative emotions.  Saying, “Hitting hurts and it is my job as your dad/mom to see that no one is hurt” is a factual statement
  • Validate your child’s competency.  “I know you can figure out what to do that will get you what you want without anyone getting upset/hurt.”
  • Ask what was your child’s goal or if necessary define what you think your child wanted.  “You wanted a turn to play with that truck” or “You don’t want your sister to borrow your sweater without asking”
  • Explore alternatives.  “What else could you have done?”

Developing the skills to interact and negotiate issues is a long process that requires enormous patience and perseverance.  Children need loving guidance, emotional maturity and many years to master these skills.  And we all will make mistakes along the way so learning to say we are sorry and trying to find better alternatives are additional behaviors we can model.

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