My four-year-old has had her share of time outs. Time outs typically involve her have to go to her room for two minutes. The door can stay open if she’s not having an epic freakout. Why I like time outs is that it puts some distance between me and her so we can both cool off before getting back to whatever it is we were doing. Time outs don’t always work, though. Sometimes if she’s upset, the time out just makes it worse because even though she’s acting out what she really wants is me. Sometimes the time out is actually for me, so I don’t end up having an epic freakout of my own, but isn’t going to do anything for my daughter’s ‘tude.
That’s why I decided to research alternatives to time outs. Oh, I still keep the time out in my parenting toolkit but I certainly use time outs less frequently now that I have options like the following.
A Few Deep Breaths
Time outs seem to happen as the result of a child is doing/not doing something the parent doesn’t want/wants. Usually everyone involved is frustrated. Things escalate. But what if you could both take a step back from the situation. Not in the direction of consequences (which may come later in some other form, like having to clean up a mess) but rather just out of the moment. When you’re reaching your breaking point and sense your child is, too, ask them to join you in taking a few big monster breaths. Who can breathe more deeply? How much can you push out your chest with just your breath? This alternative to time outs does double duty – deep breathing may calm you down while also distracting your child.
The Family Time Out
On particularly stressful days at our house when – if we’re brave enough to admit it – the adults are being just as loud and obnoxious as the kids, I will sometimes declare a family time out. That’s when we all sit down to spend time with each other doing something that puts us close to one another but doesn’t involve a lot of conversation and leaves no room for lectures. For us a family time out usually involves making popcorn and watching a show but if TV is not your bag then a taking a family time out could mean doing a puzzle or reading to one another from a chapter book. The idea is to acknowledge that everyone was having an off day and we can all forgive each other.
While grownups who do wrong can face the ultimate time out – prison – you have to admit that the time out isn’t a natural or logical consequence. Time outs are an easy go-to disciplinary tool but they’re best used when parents and kids just need a few minutes apart. When there’s more on the line, why not craft a consequence that fits the crime? Caught your kid making a mess very deliberately? Have them clean it up. If they hurt someone’s feelings, have them think of a way to make it up to the injured party and make sure they do it. Or if what’s happening is something as simple as not putting on a coat or shoes let the consequence be being cold or having to walk into a playdate sans sneakers.
Distraction with a Side of Silliness
Going back to the example in which your little one refuses to put on a coat, sometimes the solution is actually as simple as switching gears. They’re expecting you to say “Put! On! Your! Coat!” and they’re ready with their response. Instead you say “Well, then, get your boots on your hands and your mittens on your feet and let’s go.” At my house, this’ll stop the four-year-old in her tracks while she mulls it over and then she’s either going to laugh or put her hands on her hips and say “MaMUH! Boots don’t go on your HANDS!” in exasperated tones. Jacket drama? Forgotten, and we can both move on.
Empathy and Listening
Do you ever catch yourself only half listening to your child? I know I do! Sometimes family drama can be chalked up to a parents’ failure to really listen and understand what a kid is trying to say. This won’t work during a full-blown tantrum, of course, but if that’s where you’re headed and you’re not there yet why not take a minute to listen? I have literally been in a jacket drama situation where I’m raising my voice and threatening that imminent time out only to find out when I stop and listen that the whole reason she doesn’t want to put on her jacket is because she has to pee. Oops.
Other alternatives to time out include going to a chill out corner together to read a book, going outside for some fresh air, or even just doling out a more fitting consequence. Time outs, I think, still have their place. I’m not in the camp that believes that one minute in a room that’s 10 feet away from mama and in full view is going to scar anyone’s psyche for life. But in that same vein, time outs don’t always work or even work at all for some kids, so why not try something different for a change?
Now you tell me: What alternatives to time out have worked for your family? (And please, don’t say spanking!)