Inside: Time-in vs. time-outs, what is the best way to discipline your child? Time-in is the preferred method of discipline for positive parenting proponents, but sometimes children resist time-ins. There is also some scientific evidence that time-outs can be effective in certain situations when time-ins are not. Is there another way? Introducing the Feeling-Break — the best way to set limits on your child’s behavior while still acknowledging their emotions.
Disciplining Your Child: What is a Time-Out?
The classic time-out is used as a punishment or, at best, negative reinforcement. Most simply put, a child does something they shouldn’t — hit, push, kick, or scream and the parent sends their child to the time-out chair or their room to “think about what they did” and “calm down.”
Parents often think that it is best to ignore their children while they are in time-out so they do not accidentally reinforce bad behavior by giving their children any attention.
Parents have the best intentions using these strategies — they want to teach their children that their behaviors are unacceptable, and they don’t want to use harsher punishment.
However, consistently leaving children to figure out what they did wrong and not acknowledging their genuine emotions can have unintended consequences. At best, we miss out on a chance to build emotion-regulation skills, and at worst, we set the stage for later emotional dysregulation and behavior problems.
We all want children to learn limits and understand that certain behaviors are not acceptable, and we also want children to learn to regulate their emotions and ‘calm down.’
Unfortunately, time-outs don’t often accomplish those objectives long term. Instead, children learn to stuff impulses and emotions deep inside in order to fit into a rigid set of rules.
Time-outs in the traditional sense are not recommended as an effective way to discipline or as a way to help your child develop better regulation skills.
Positive Discipline: What is a Time-In?
The time-in is the positive/gentle parenting answer to time-out. Instead of leaving your child alone with their very big and hard-to-control emotions, you sit with them and scaffold self-regulation while at the same time reinforcing limits.
Here is a typical scenario: Your child is playing with a friend, and the friend grabs away the toy your child was playing with. Your child grabs it back. The friend grabs it back again, and your child pushes the friend over. Tears all around.
You approach your child and remind them it is not okay to use their hands when upset. You remove your child from the situation and ask them to sit with you. Then, you help your child work through some big feelings and repair the situation.
“Wow, did you feel really frustrated when your friend grabbed the toy? (Help your child name and notice the emotion). What are some ways we can show our frustration? (Say it aloud, tell me, stomp your feet like a dinosaur). Remember, we cannot use our hands to show our frustration. Let’s see if we can take turns with the toy – I can set a timer. (This begins to repair the social situation, building the foundation for empathy and social repair).”
The big difference from a time-out is that in a time-in, rather than leaving the child alone, the caregiver sits with the child and helps co-regulate big emotions and helps to guide the repair of the situation.
There are three things a Time-In must include to be effective: Acknowledging Emotion, Setting Limits on Behavior, and Repair/Redirection.
Acknowledging how your child feels helps to diffuse their inappropriate behavior. Once children feel understood, so much of the behavior melts away. Often, the behavior is just an immature attempt to express emotion. Time-ins allow your child to grow and learn about feelings and relationships.
Related: Handle Your Child’s Big Emotions With Love: How to Hold Space for Your Child’s Impulses and Emotions
Sitting with your child in that emotion also reinforces the feeling of connection to you, erasing the need for “attention-getting behavior,” which is often just a bid for connection.
Sometimes, however, time-ins just don’t work. There is actually minimal research support for time-ins. There is quite a debate in the clinical world because there is evidence that time-outs are effective, especially for children with ADHD or disruptive and aggressive behavior. However, I believe newer paradigms prioritizing neuroceptive safety will show that this research was flawed.
There is also research (Stelter & Halberstadt, 2011) (Wong et al., 2008) (Hurrell et al., 2015) showing that parents who value and accept their children’s emotions, including negative emotions, had children who:
- Felt More Secure
- Showed Greater Peer Competence
- Have lower Anxiety
Bottom line? A time-in is a good choice. But it doesn’t always work and sometimes children resist it because of the different types of emotions they are feeling.
So, what do you do if time-ins don’t work?
The Time-in with a Twist: Introducing The Feeling-Break
When my son was younger and was really upset, I would sit with him, offer a hug, acknowledge his emotions, and guide him to a better response. This type of time-in often would instantly soothe tantrums, and we would move on about our day.
There were also times when a time-in just didn’t work:
He needed a break.
Away from the activity, away from the stress of the situation, and even away from me. The activity was so over-stimulating that a quiet break was the only thing that let him sort through his big feelings. We all feel like that sometimes, don’t we? Sometimes, when you are upset you just need a minute to catch your breath — to just feel what you are feeling.
I needed a break.
Let’s face it — sometimes you just don’t have it in you for a time-in right at that moment. If you are close to blowing your fuse, it is okay to say you need a break. You are modeling self-regulation to your child in that moment. And that’s a positive in my book.
The Time-In isn’t changing behavior.
Sometimes, your child knows better, yet they may have trouble doing better in the midst of big emotions. They need help regulating impulses, and a break to pause and reflect can be a powerful tool to help develop regulation. Eventually, that can translate to thinking before acting — thereby reducing impulsive behavior.
How to do a Feeling-Break in a Way That Supports Positive Behavior
Example 1 – Encourage Reflection:
Your child is excited to go to the new playground in the park. They see the big slide when you arrive and can’t wait to get to it. They run up the steps and push in front of all the other kids waiting to take a turn on the slide:
- “Wow, you have some excitement bubbling inside you for this slide. I need you to take a Feeling-Break with me. (Lead them to a bench).”
- “I am so happy you feel excited about the slide (let them express their excitement). Did you notice that you pushed past the other children, waiting for a turn on the slide? (Let your child answer and reflect). Even when we are really excited, we must wait our turn.”
- “Would you like to have a drink of water? We will sit on this bench for four minutes and think about how we can wait and how we need to be aware of other children on the playground to keep them and ourselves safe.”
- “After 4-minutes you can have a do-over! You can be excited and be safe with other children on the slide and wait your turn. “
When a time-in isn’t changing behavior, your child needs a few minutes to think about how they can do it differently — so they can succeed in the chance to do it over again. And if they can’t, you might have to leave and come back another day and try again.
Reflection is a powerful tool shown to directly impact children’s self-regulation abilities. Young children can tell you the rule, remember the rule, and cannot act on the rule in the moment of big excitement. Helping your child reflect and having a do-over can help them act on the rule, even when they have big impulses.
Example 2 – Space to Feel:
Your child is throwing a tantrum. You approach your child and offer a hug. The tantrum escalates.
- “Wow, you are having some big feelings. It is okay to have big feelings. I will let you feel those feelings. When you need me, I’ll be in the next room. If you want a hug, I’ll be there and ready with a hug for you.”
When your child approaches you, you can move into a time-in. Kids just need a chance and the space to feel. In this case, you are saying: Yes! You can have space to feel. Check back in after a few minutes.
Giving unending validation and acknowledgment at times like this can backfire, potentially even enabling the tantrum or escalation of emotion.
You can still acknowledge your child’s emotions while giving them a chance to regulate themselves.
You aren’t abandoning your child with their emotions you are trusting them to put some of the strategies in place that you have taught them.
You also make a note that they need attention, and you make sure to do that later that day — have some quality one-on-one time and reconnect. But right now, it’s okay to give them space to regulate.
Example 3 – You Need Space to Regulate Your Own Feelings:
Your child is lashing out at you because they are frustrated, but you are at your breaking point as well:
- “Wow, I can see you are feeling some frustration. I am feeling frustrated, too. We both need a Feeling-Break. I am going to go into this room for 5 minutes to feel my feelings.”
It is okay to show your child that you have feelings, too — and that sometimes you need to regulate them. While we always want to be there for our children, the truth is sometimes we have to step away for a moment. That is okay!
Reassure your child that you love them even when you need a bit of space. This is a chance to model what emotion regulation looks like to your child, so take the time and then come back ready to reconnect with your child.
Two key elements make a Feeling-Break a fantastic learning tool for kids:
Inappropriate behaviors come from the immature expression of emotions, overstimulation, hunger, and fatigue. A well-timed Feeling-Break helps all of these things! During those 4 minutes on the bench at the playground, offer a snack if it’s nearing lunch and you know hunger might be contributing to impulse control.
The difference from a time-out is that you don’t ignore your child. You simply ask them to pause. You don’t tell your child to ‘calm-down’; instead, you tell them to take the time to feel their feeling. The difference from a time-in is that you always look for the root emotion under the behavior. First, you allow space when needed by you or your child and include a timed break for reflection.
A Feeling-Break puts emotions first. Space to feel and express. Once your child expresses their emotion with you during the break, the need for the behavior will melt away. Only after emotions are expressed can reflection take place. Reflecting on the situation with your child and encouraging do-overs helps your child build up self-regulation skills in real and messy social situations.
Feeling-Breaks Teach Your Child:
- The power of the pause.
- How to reflect on their actions and try again.
- How to seek comfort and/or space when they have big feelings.
- The importance of repairing and empathizing with others.
These are HUGE life skills. And, not accidently, just what kids need to be learning across early childhood to support the development of executive functions.
A Feeling-Break is flexible — you can mold it to different situations. And within the feelings-break, children learn that regulation is flexible, too.
It is a hard thing to do to sit with an emotion. To just feel it — live in it. But if we allow ourselves to be in the moment with our emotions, we can let them go easier.
Feeling-Breaks allow for just that. Once we sit with the emotion, the need to suppress or explode fades away, as does much of the “acting-out” behaviors.
When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.Mr. Rodgers