You’re arguing with your spouse through text message. You are mutually tense because you have deadlines to meet at both of your jobs. The stress is causing friction. You know that the argument is “silly” but the feelings you are having a very strong. Suddenly, your spouse shuts down the entire conversation and says they don’t want to talk about this topic with you. Then, they throw their cell phone in a drawer at their office and ignore you for the rest of the day.
As the day goes on, how are you feeling? Rejected? Abandoned? Confused? Frightened about the status of your relationship? Angry? Furious? Sad?
It’s probably safe to say that you are not feeling awesome, right? That’s because when you were feeling upset and emotional about something, the person who is supposed to have your back chose to shut you out.
Now, imagine you are six-years-old. Your parents have just gotten a call from school that you misbehaved. You know that you did misbehave at school but you also feel really overwhelmed by your new reading lessons, and there is a kid on the playground that is not being very kind to you. When the adults ask what happened, you simply melt down. You don’t want to, and you are not trying to be “bad” but you are simply unable to stop the flood of tears and, as you try to explain, all you can seem to do is sob.
Your parents are becoming frustrated with you. As they become aggravated with you and tell you to stop crying, you feel very misunderstood and angry. You let out a scream. Immediately, your mother shouts at you, “Go to your room NOW and don’t come out until we come get you!”
You storm up the stairs feeling completely alone. As you enter your room, you hear your mother yell up, “AND CLOSE THE DOOR!” You shut the door and get into your bed.
How does six-year-old you feel? Probably a lot of the same emotions listed in the first scenario, right? Plus, there is the added element of an immature and undeveloped mind which is now soaking up this moment as a life lesson. You wonder, “When I mess up, will people always just lock me away and shut me down?”
Next, consider how six-year-old you would feel if your mother came with you to your room, grabbed you a stuffed animal to squeeze until you could squeeze no more, and waited patiently for you to calm down?
Maybe she even softly hummed or held your hand. She told you she needed you to take some breaths because she needed to talk to you. But, she didn’t yell and she didn’t leave you all alone.
How would that 6-year-old version of you feel? Valued? Understood? Cared for? Encouraged? Supported? Believed? Comforted? Calmed? Loved?
While a time-out shuts a child down and makes he or she feel discarded, a “time-in” (as described above with mom sitting and helping the child through big emotions) allows them to process their feelings and behaviors. The pain of rejection is very real for little ones. Brain scans show that time-outs can have similar effects on the brain as physical pain.
Does that mean time-outs have no place in a kid’s life? No, but, while parents must say “no” at times and setting boundaries is our job, we should also remember to acknowledge our kids’ feelings and the way in which they experience the world. Given that the objective of discipline is to train kids to make better decisions, parents should consider what is being learned from a time-out versus a time-in. When kids are upset, they need parental direction and connection more than ever.
So, while it is not necessary that you completely pull time-out from your disciplinary repertoire, consider adding “time-ins” to your set of parenting tools and try using them when you feel they are appropriate.
While your kid is feeling confused and upset, connect with them and engage in a discussion that is reflective. You may find that this produces better results as far as shaping long-term behaviors.
To be clear, I do send my kids to time-out sometimes and I don’t judge anyone who also does so. However, when in doubt as a parent, I try and think of how I would feel if I were in the position of the kid. The example at the beginning of this article illustrated how terrible it feels when we – as grown-ups – feel shut down and ignored. Now, consider that so much of what your child is learning about the world, about trusting others and about how to cope with big emotions is coming from their interactions with you. What are you teaching them?