In positive discipline, time-outs have an important and effective role. They are not used as a “thinking tool” or a punitive reaction to an inappropriate action; rather, they are used in a positive, proactive way, much like those taken in sports games. A time-out is a chance to pause, regroup, and collect ourselves (children and parents). Time-outs are effective when they are about feeling better. When they are used non-punitively, time-outs teach acceptance and management of strong emotions and are a very effective discipline tool.
When emotions are running high, we need time to calm down and feel better so that we can “improve our game.” Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time Out, advocates, “Children do better when they feel better.” Here are some elements in making time-outs positive experiences:
Talk about feelings.
At a time when no one is currently distressed, talk to your child about moments when he’s been really upset. Let him know that everyone gets angry, sad, and frustrated sometimes and feeling these ways is okay. Make sure your child knows that feelings are always okay. But some emotions sure don’t feel pleasant, and it helps to know what to do then.
Designate a feel-good spot.
Ask your child’s input on where the two of you could create a “feel good” place. It might be in her room or it might be on the couch in the living room. To some children, going into a bedroom might seem too isolating and would prefer to be able to see a parent, while other children might choose their room because it can keep out younger siblings. Whether it is a bedroom, bathroom, or a spot in the kitchen, allow your child to choose an area that will be designated as her place to regroup and calm down. Have her create a name for this special spot.
Create a comfort basket.
Find a basket and fill it with items that will help soothe your upset child. Certified Positive Discipline Associate Glenda Montgomery advocates the addition of such a “comfort basket” in feel-good spots. “If a child has any special toy or stuffed animal that he likes to hold when he’s upset, definitely add it to the comfort basket.” Blankets, books, and music are all excellent items to put in comfort baskets, as are lumps of clay to pound, exercise bands to stretch, and squishy balls to squeeze. Older children may like to keep a journal or sketchbook in their basket, or even a bottle of bubble bath to use. If you’re using a large area or a whole room as the feel-good spot, you could also include bigger items such as a punching bag or trampoline. The idea is to fill the area with items to help your child relieve stress and begin to calm down. Some children benefit from a physical outlet, while others prefer emotional outlets.
When your child gets emotionally overwhelmed and upset, and it’s time to put the feel-good spot to use, ask if she would like to go by herself or if she’d like you to come too. Children have different preferences for this; some kids may feel “banished” if they are expected to go alone, and would feel more secure if you’re there supporting them, while others need to be left alone to decompress. It is important to respect their preferences, and understand that these may change over the years.
Deborah Thompson, a mother of three and and an administrator of an online positive discipline discussion forum, has been using positive discipline for 11 years and finds that she is able to adapt the positive time-out techniques to each of her children in various situations. She says, “I have used the car, a bathroom, even an out-of-the-way spot in the grocery store when I’ve needed to take a cooling-down moment with my child.” She also says that the most important element of positive time outs is the ability to focus on reconnection. “Once my children have had some time to cool off, I always make sure I reconnect with them afterwards.” That may be in the form of a loving, wordless hug, an empathic conversation, or a cooperative activity like playing a board game or cooking together. It’s a gesture that tells your child, “You were mad, and that’s OK. I love you no matter how you feel.”
Teaching children to calm down after being in a highly aroused emotional state begins at birth. Positive Discipline trainer and author Arlene Raphael states, “Whenever a parent picks up a crying baby with the intent to help calm her, she is experiencing a positive time out.” Holding and comforting an upset child stimulates calm-inducing brain chemicals that help regulate emotions. As a child grows, they can become a more proactive participant in deciding how a time-out will look and feel. And parents can ensure that time-outs are truly in their child’s best interest if they ask for input, work together to understand everyone’s needs, remain flexible, and keep in mind the big picture; that in positive discipline, a time-out is just a way of helping a child feel better so he can do better.