What to do if time outs are not working

Are you finding that time outs are not working? Some parents may want to consider replacing them with a 'time in.'

Photo by Carey Kirkella/Getty Images

When Lindsay Viets-Moore’s son, Owen starts careening toward a meltdown, Viets-Moore responds with an unusual question: “Would you like a cuddle?” The two will sit on the couch together for a few minutes until Owen, who is four, has calmed down, and they can discuss the situation.

“It’s about connecting,” Viets-Moore says. “I think children are fundamentally trying to do good, so I look at what’s really going on when he’s upset. We talk about his feelings, which calms him down enough to be rational.” Viets-Moore has been using this method since Owen was a toddler; his sister, Sadie, who just turned one, is next up for the “cuddle treatment.”

Most parents are very familiar with the time out (sometimes painfully so), and have never heard of a time in. But it’s growing in popularity. Some parents create a time in spot, complete with comfy pillow, books and a designated calm-down object for the child to focus on until they’re ready to behave again.

It’s all designed to get that frenzied little toddler brain into a space where they can problem solve the situation and learn from the experience. If it sounds a little too touchy-feely for you, consider that it’s based on the theory that what works for adults when they’re upset will also work for kids. We know that we can’t come up with solutions in a moment of anger, and the same holds true for a volatile toddler.

“Calming down is a life skill,” says parenting expert Judy Arnall, author of Discipline without Distress. “Removing the child from the situation and sitting with them helps them get a grip on their emotions. Kids can’t do it on their own — we need to help them learn that self-control.” Traditional time out — particularly dispatching kids to their rooms — is little more than jail time, argues Arnall. “It’s a punitive measure, and there are no studies that show that punishment helps kids gain control and have better relationships,” she says.

The time out technique advocated by attachment parenting expert and paediatrician William Sears is really not that different from a time in: His version involves removing the child from the situation and asking him to sit quietly, but he doesn’t suggest isolating the child.

If a cuddle seems like rewarding bad behaviour, Arnall points out that’s only true if kids don’t normally get enough one-on-one attention. She also points to somewhat surprising personal results — her four well-behaved teenagers. “Not punishing kids really pays off once those toddlers grow up,” she says. “It teaches them to solve problems on their own.”

This article appeared in our July 2012 issue under the headline “Trying a time in” (p. 50).

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