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Time Out!

Fall is my favorite season. The warm summer days are fading to crisp cool evenings; the colors all around are changing. Skiing and snowboarding are right around the corner, and of course, football! With all the changes that accompany the transition from summer to winter, we often gravitate to making change in our own lives. For you, maybe the changes are to your health, finances, relationships, family, or parenting. So, now seems like a great time to change your thoughts about time-out.

According to Dan Siegel, co-author of the new book No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, time-out is the most common discipline strategy used by parents.  It is also often recommended by early childhood specialists and pediatricians (Siegel & Payne, 2014).  Dan Siegel states, “In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain—like that caused by rejection—looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.” (Siegel & Payne, 2014) Why is Dan Siegel talking about rejection here?  Well, rejection is the emotion most often felt by children who are put in time-out.  We are sending them the message: “You are out of control, and I don’t want to be with you right now.” As parents, our ultimate goal when using time-out is teaching the child to stop behavior x, y, or z.  No teaching can take place in isolation.  As humans, we are hard wired to connect with other humans, especially when we are dysregulated. When Payton Manning calls “Time-Out!” on the field because things are not going according to plan, he does not walk off and isolate himself.  Nor do his teammates. The purpose of ‘Time-Out’ in football is to re-connect, support each other, calm down, clarify, re-organize, and come up with a new plan. Likewise, as adults, when we experience a stressful event such as a car accident or loss of a job, do family and friends respond with, “Go be by yourself,” or “What can I do?” We do the latter by offering support and help during times of stress.  Why not do the same with our children?

“On top of everything, time-outs are usually ineffective in accomplishing the goals of discipline: to change behavior and build skills. Parents may think that time-outs cause children to calm down and reflect on their behavior. But instead, time-outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them.” (Siegel & Payne, 2014)

Making the change

Children have a small window of tolerance and are easily emotionally overwhelmed. Ultimately, our goal is to help widen their window of tolerance by teaching them how to calm down and better control their emotions. So first things first, ask yourself: “Is my child having this giant temper tantrum in the middle of the cereal aisle because they are sick, tired, hungry, or need attention?” All of these situations will increase the likelihood of a melt-down, causing challenging behaviors to emerge.  If you have determined that your child is indeed tired, hungry, sick, or needs some attention, connect with that emotion and do what you can to resolve it. For example, “I know you’re tired and unhappy.  We are almost done, you can sleep in the car on the way home.” You could also try, “You must be hungry since breakfast was a couple of hours ago; here is an apple.”  Or” I know I have been really busy and on the phone, do you want to play I-spy while we finish shopping?”

Strategy number two works with toddlers to adolescents, and yes, adults too: first connect to the emotion, then redirect them. It might sound like this: “I see you are soooo angry right now,” pause, deep breath, eye contact, and gentle physical touch, “It’s hard when we have to share the I-pad with your sister, but it is her turn.” Or “WOW, it looks like that made you so sad!” pause, deep breath, eye contact, and gentle physical touch, “I can’t believe the dog ate your new shoes either.” This allows us to connect to the emotion our child is experiencing, model a calming strategy (deep breath), make eye contact, and offer a gentle loving touch.  Furthermore, we are connecting directly with the right side of the brain where intense emotions are processed. The redirection, teaching, and reflecting happens after we appeal to the right side of the brain.   “Next time the need for discipline arises, parents might consider a ‘time-in’: forging a loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting. Some time to calm down can be extremely valuable for children, teaching them how to pause and reflect on their behavior. Especially for younger children, such reflection is created in relationship, not in isolation. And all of this will make parenting a whole lot more effective and rewarding in the long run.” (Siegel & Payne, 2014)

As we move into this new season full of change I encourage you to think of time-out as they do in football, a time to re-connect, support each other, calm down, clarify, re-organize, and come up with a new plan.

Power is of two kinds.  One is obtained by fear of punishment and the other by acts of love.  Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment. (Gandhi)

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