When it came to the principle of time in/ time out, I thought I understood it thoroughly. But I was making one substantial mistake.
Every so often, life gets the best of my normally agreeable and earnest four-year-old son. Whether he’s tired, out of his routine, or aggravated by some other factor, he becomes emotional, irrational, and angry. When he’s like this, I can’t coach him through what he’s feeling.
This is how it typically unravels.
My daughter will be playing quietly and he will interrupt. Frustrated, she’ll ask for space. My son sees this as a challenge and gets closer. I intervene by getting down to his level and reiterating his sister’s request. I suggest an alternative to being shoulder to shoulder with her. He responds with a primal grunt and gets closer again. I give him a warning and tell him if he can’t respect his sister’s wishes I will take him upstairs to his bedroom.
He’ll scream and either get into her personal space again or hit her.
Then, I bring him to his room and try to stay with him.
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Why I stay with my son: Time In vs. Time Out
When it comes to the disciplinary practice of time in/ time out, researchers, developmental psychologists, and family therapists advise against them. Traditionally, timeouts are when a parent puts a child in the corner or sends her to their room. Researchers describe this as ‘love withdrawal‘ because the child is left without the parent.
This form of punishment is ineffective for a number of reasons. The main one is that timeouts are used when a child shows a lack of self-control. When a child is struggling the most we shouldn’t send him away. Research has also found that children internalize our values the best when we use reason. Because of this many parenting experts now use the term, ‘time in.’ It still is a timeout except the parent is with the child.
So, I try my best to be there for him.
Related reading: 5 Positive Parenting Alternatives to Timeout
The problem? My son doesn’t want me to stay.
So we enter into this cycle of him screaming for me. I return to his side to which replies that he wants space. Then he screams for me again. I wait on the stairs outside of his room as the cycle plays itself out. Eventually, he cools down. Then I talk to him and we go downstairs.
Every. single. time. he starts having a rough time, I know we are in for this same ordeal.
Related reading: Calm Down Corner: Why have one and what’s in ours
Until something pretty big changed…
I was on vacation with my family when I stumbled upon this online parenting conference. One of the speakers, Ariadne Brill walked through the concepts of time-ins. Her biggest piece of advice aside from the obvious, no timeouts thing? Don’t lecture.
Huh? I thought. How will my kids know they’ve done wrong if I don’t tell them?
Unconvinced, I decided I would try the advice of the child specialist just once.
The next time my son lashed out, I brought him upstairs. But instead of lecturing him each step of the way, I said nothing. Upon doing this, I realized how much I say to him before we even hit his bedroom. When we got into his room, I hugged him and, again, said nothing. He was already starting to calm down.
“You’re pretty angry, huh?”
Sobbing, he nodded.
This was the first time I was able to stay with him. Moreover, this was the first time I had gotten more than a primal, angry grunt as a response.
I couldn’t believe it.
After a little more time and after he’d calmed down more, I asked him what he is supposed to do when he’s upset with his sister.
Through sniffles, he admitted, “Ask for help.”
“That’s right, love. All I need you to do is say you need help and I’ll help you.”
Here’s the thing… Young kids aren’t so good at the self-regulation, but they are aware of when they’ve done wrong. In testing out the advice I’d heard, I ended up realizing how much I inundate my son. Not only that, I was lecturing him when he was at his worst. In putting myself in his shoes, I wouldn’t be receptive to advice or coaching if I was especially angry.
I can’t say that this one change has altered everything. I don’t know that the next time my son needs to go to his room he’ll want me there or that he’ll respond when I speak to him. What I do know is that in not lecturing, I am parenting more effectively and more compassionately.
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