In parenting, time-outs have an important and effective role. A time-out is a chance for both children and parents to pause, regroup, and collect themselves. They are most effective when they are about feeling better as opposed to being used as a “thinking tool” or a punitive reaction to an inappropriate action.
Rather, when they are used non-punitively—in a proactive way, much like those taken in sports games—time-outs teach acceptance and management of strong emotions and are a very effective discipline tool.
When emotions are running high, everyone needs time to calm down and feel better so that they can “improve their game.” Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time Out, advocates that children have very immature levels of brain development and need a lot of help in regulating their emotions. “Where in the world did we get this crazy idea that in order for children to do better, first we have to make them feel worse?” says Nelsen. “Children do better when they feel better.” She says that the way many time-outs are implemented only serve to make a child feel worse; ashamed or isolated when they could be opportunities to help children learn how to handle strong emotions.
Here are some steps you can take to ensure that time-outs are positive, helpful experiences for your child:
Talk about feelings.
At a time when no one is currently distressed, talk to your child about moments when he’s been really upset. Let him know that everyone gets angry, sad, and frustrated sometimes and feeling this way is okay. Make sure your child knows that feelings are always okay. But some emotions sure don’t feel pleasant, and it helps to know what to do then.
Designate a feel-good spot.
Ask your child’s input on where the two of you could create a “feel good” place. It might be in her room or it might be on the couch in the living room. To some children, going into a bedroom might seem too isolating and would prefer to be able to see a parent, while other children might choose their room because it can keep out younger siblings.
Whether it is a bedroom, bathroom, or a spot in the kitchen, allow your child to choose an area that will be designated as her place to regroup and calm down. Have her create a name for this special spot.
Create a comfort basket.
Find a basket and fill it with items that will help soothe your upset child. Certified Positive Discipline Trainer Glenda Montgomery advocates the addition of a “comfort basket” in feel-good spots. “If a child has any special toy or stuffed animal that he likes to hold when he’s upset, definitely add it to the comfort basket.”
Blankets, books, and music are all excellent items to put in comfort baskets, as are lumps of clay to pound, exercise bands to stretch, and squishy balls to squeeze. Older children may like to keep a journal or sketchbook in their basket, or even a bottle of bubble bath to use.
If you’re using a large area or a whole room as the feel-good spot, you could also include bigger items such as a punching bag or trampoline. The idea is to fill the area with items to help your child relieve stress and begin to calm down. Some children benefit from a physical outlet, while others prefer emotional outlets.
When your child gets emotionally overwhelmed and upset and it’s time to put the feel-good spot to use, ask if she would like to go by herself or if she’d like you to come too. Children have different preferences for this; some kids may feel “banished” if they are expected to go alone, and would feel more secure if you’re there supporting them, while others need to be left alone to decompress. It is important to respect their preferences, and understand that these may change over the years.
Parents can ensure that time-outs are truly in their child’s best interest if they ask for input, work together to understand everyone’s needs, remain flexible, and keep in mind the big picture; that a time-out is just a way of helping a child feel better so he can do better.
Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator and writer with a focus on child development, family relationships, and discipline. She holds a BA in education and biology, and is a moderator on an international parenting forum on the topic of discipline and counsels parents on how to achieve better communication and more connected relationships with their kids.