A couple months ago I wrote a post about the kind of discipline that encourages a growth mindset. It was all about a compassionate style that communicates trust in development, attachment and understanding the hearts and minds of our kids. The piece is really a starting-off point for a longer discussion because while empathic connection is very important and will often stop misbehavior in its tracks, it doesn’t always work. A lot of people have been asking me lately what to do when connecting empathically with their children doesn’t stop the behavior, or even makes it worse. Discipline is about guidance, not compliance. But it is also about setting loving boundaries. Sometimes you have to set a limit by interrupting a behavior, by removing the child from the situation. I gave cursory instructions for how to give a time-out in this same piece and I think I need to clarify something. Here it is: If you want to know how to give a time out gracefully, don’t.
Huh?? What else can we do if we are committed to non-violent parenting? The answer is to give a time-in instead.
I know. Pretty confusing. The problem is our collective understanding of time-outs runs the gamut from sending the child out of the room for a prescribed amount of time to sitting quietly together and everything in between. Many of these are problematic because they end up leaving the child feeling alone and disconnected, when they actually need the opposite. Time-Ins are not about punishment. We need to get on the same page about when we give time-outs, how to give them and why they work. To understand time-outs better, I think we need to start in the future. Let me ask you a question: What kind of adult do you do you hope your child will become? What kinds of qualities and values do you hope they will possess?
This is where we start. When you boil it down, the overwhelming majority of us hope that our kids will be confident, kind, generous, respectful, compassionate and courageous. It may seem like common sense, but I will just say it explicitly. If we want our children to embody certain qualities as adults, we need to embody these qualities ourselves, and now – even when we’ve had the worst day ever, which is really hard, but it’s point number one. As one client put it recently, “If I act like a tyrant he will become a tyrant, just like what happened to me.” If you are finding it difficult to connect with love and empathy when your child misbehaves, if you are finding yourself triggered, with heels dug in, fuming, yelling or even worse over common discipline issues with your child, then that is indication that some supported soul-searching is in order. Remember to love yourself through the process: I’m pretty’s sure if you knew how to do it differently, you would.
And that brings me to my next point. Though it can feel like our kids are manipulative, defiant, naughty (you’re getting the picture here) they really aren’t. What they are is lacking skills. No child wants to behave badly. All kids want to be good. But without the certain relational/developmental skills, they are left to resort to other means like manipulation or aggression. Just like us. [For more on this, please see Ross Greene’s amazing work http://www.livesinthebalance.org/ ].
SO where do we go from here? In order to provide the guidance that our kids need when connection is just not enough and you need to set a firm boundary, you must start with your own emotional regulation. The first step in a successful Time-In is to notice your emotional state. If you are feeling angry, clenched, tense or hopeless (to name a few) then it is time to stop and take a breath. There is nothing worth teaching that can’t wait for your nervous system to settle down, because your own nervous system is actually your tool. This is why time-ins work. During a time-in, your child borrows your nervous system to soothe herself because she is not yet at a point developmentally where she can do it on her own. She needs co-regulation until her own nervous system settles down enough to play within the rules.
Another question parents have been asking a lot is what behavior warrants a time out? This is something each family needs to answer for themselves; but I encourage you to look back at those qualities you hope your child will embody as a grown-up. If the behavior is blatantly counter to one of those, or when safety is at risk, then it’s probably time. When kids are so dysregulated that they cannot change gears when you attempt to redirect them, then that is a clue that they are unable to calm down and cooperate on their own and need a time-in. Ask yourself why is my child acting like this? Be curious about your child’s experience; is a need going unmet? Did you miss his feelings being hurt by a playmate? This information will guide you and help you tap into empathy for your child as you connect through time-in.
- Check your reactivity. If you are clenched, take some more breaths. Be curious about what’s triggering it. Here’s a hint: It’s less about your child’s behavior and more about what the behavior signifies to you.
- Remove the child from the situation with an invitation to go be with you. If he doesn’t come willingly, you may have to physically remove him. Check your body-tone. You want your touch to communicate safety and softness because that is what your child needs in this moment. No grabbing!
- Be together with your child in his feelings, even if they are big and scary. Show him you love him even when he is this dysregulated. Use your touch and your voice to communicate safety and faith in him.
- Get creative. This is a Time-In; nobody needs to sit in a naughty chair feeling punished. Go for a walk, read a book, paint a picture, play ball. This is about connection time, not punishment.
- Teach later. Correcting the wrong that your child has just perpetrated can be so compelling, especially when we are triggered. Do yourselves both a favor and wait until later. When we are dysregulated our learning brain is actually turned-off. Your message will get through much more effectively later when your child is feeling more open.
If this sounds like a bunch of hooey to you, then ask yourself this: Is what you’re doing now working? A client came to me for parent coaching. She was so angry it was palpable. Her first-grader was not cooperating, yelling hurtful things at her, being disrespectful; and my client was reacting to her in kind. The language she used was so venomous it had me worried. It was clear to me that just like her child wanted to do good (remember, all kids do), this mom wanted to do a good job parenting (all parents do too). But she was lacking the regulation and the skills to parent the way she wanted to. So we worked on uncovering the triggers that caused her strong reactivity and soothing her nervous system so she could lend it to her child. She needed support, and co-regulation with me, through this part. She worked on time-ins at home with her child. Remarkably, this pattern completely shifted within a couple short months. Both mom and child are much happier and connected much more of the time, and when her child gets dysregulated, this mom knows how to help. You can too.