Updated: Apr 25, 2022
We have all heard a lot about Time out, but more and more families are interested in a more connected approach to parenting. So how do we do Time-in? Here are some ideas.
With what we know about brain development, we recognise that children are not always capable of independent reflection and problem solving; a task which is often expected when time-out is enforced. But this is a function of an area of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) which is under construction.
Time-in is a learning rich opportunity for connection with your child. The more experience your child has of going from an internal state of chaos (a tantrum or meltdown) to a state of calm, the more efficient their brain will be at doing this independently when it is neurologically appropriate. Children learn to regulate themselves through the experience of being co-regulated.
A recent real-life example... my son was playing with his beloved sensory table. The one which he has enjoyed for almost a year. There is no doubt that he has a clear understanding that the sensory items stay-in-the-table...
On Tuesday I was getting ready to head out. Distracted and rushing, I noticed he had made a pile of his sensory-lentils on the kitchen floor. Minutes later lentils were being tossed the length of my kitchen, pinging off work-surfaces and raining down on the hard tiles.
I noticed my automatic thoughts You know better. Now I'm going to be late. I don't have time to clean this mess up today. I felt the anger rising in me. I gave a verbal reminder. "You are not allowed to throw lentils. If you can't keep the lentils in your sensory table then I am going to have to put them away!" (A ridiculous statement because half the lentils were everywhere but in his sensory table. The metaphorical horse had already bolted!). With a look of pure mischief he started swiping the lentils frantically, scattering them further. I paused and took a breath.
"I can see you're struggling with the sensory table rules today. I'm going to have to put the lentils away." Feeling dysregulated by my emotional reaction he kept swiping and flinging lentils. Laughing nervously.
"I think you need to take a break from playing right now because I notice you are having a hard time following the rules."
Holding the boundary, I picked my toddler up, his little body thrashing in my arms, and carried him to his reading nook. I took some deep breaths to regulate my own body, knowing that in order to
calm by son I first had to calm myself.
I held space for his feelings. I sat quietly with his anger. When he began to soften, I empathised. "*sigh* I hear you. It's so hard to stop playing when you were having so much fun. I can see how sad you are. Stopping playing is hard" Connecting to your child's inner experience is one of our most effective parenting tools for calming our child's stress response.
I remained emotionally available. "I'm right here, whenever you need me, I'm here!" Sometimes my son will want to be held while he falls apart. Other times he demands bodily space. I respect and respond to both, but I never recommend leaving a distressed child alone, or enforcing separation if a child wants our support. I do not recommend or use separation based discipline strategies. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that relational pain (such as through separation) shows similar brain activation as physical pain. Children have a profound need for connection, especially when they are distressed. Being emotionally available strengthens the parent-child relationship. I always recommend a relational approach when working with children.
Finally, when my son had been soothed, when he was no longer reactive but was physiologically able to receive a teaching moment we talked through what had happened. "I'm sorry" I begin. "I was so distracted this morning and rushing around... I didn't remind you of the rules when you made a pile of lentils on the floor. I should have!" He whimpered and I continued. We engaged in a reflective dialogue. I encouraged him to reflect on what happened. "Remind me, in our family, what is the rule about sensory materials?" He answered. " And why is it that we keep our sensory materials in the table?" We have been through this before, he knows the rationale. I explained why we needed to take a break when he hadn't listened to the rules. I empathised "I know you were having such fun. The sound of the lentils falling on the tiles was really interesting wasn't it? Come and help me sweep them up!"
Let me know what you think,