What Does a Time-In Really Look Like?

November 8, 2013 at 10:30 am (Positive Discipline)

Early Aug 2007 015

Ah, the time-in. Often recommended in positive parenting, a time-in is an alternative to a time-out–a connective moment instead of an isolating one. Here are some different ways time-ins (also called positive time-outs) are described:

Go to a specially designated spot that feels safe and cozy, and snuggle up. You connect, which may be all your child needs to pull herself together. If you can, you get her giggling, because laughter vents those stored-up anxieties almost as well as tears. ~Laura Markham, How to Transform Your Time Outs to Time Ins

The Positive parenting tool called time IN or positive time out  is when a child that is having a difficult moment  is kindly invited to sit somewhere, near by a care giver  to express their feelings and eventually cool down. ~Ariadne Brill, Time Outs vs. Time Ins

Sometimes just changing the scene and making reconnection a top priority can create a dramatic difference, and the tension is gone as soon as you get to the couch, so you might end up just goofing around and being silly together. ~Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, as quoted by Marcy Axness in Time Out From Time Out.

By the way, I’m linking these articles because I think they are great. I just wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the language that’s typically used to describe what a time-in means. I myself have said the same thing:

A positive time-out is a chance to pause, regroup, and collect ourselves (children and parents).  Time-outs are effective when they are about feeling better. How to Make Time Outs Positive

All of those descriptions are true; those are what time-ins are about. They sound so lovely! A time-in instead of a time-out sounds peaceful, connecting, calming, even fun.

And that’s what I want to talk about for a minute. Because for us, time-ins were never “fun.” They weren’t ever peaceful. They were chaotic with my son’s emotion. And frustrating for me. And not cuddly in the least.

The way it typically went was:

My son started losing control. He would get angry or frustrated or upset by something going on. It could’ve been a game he was not winning. It could’ve been toys he did not want to pick up. It could’ve been a conflict with another child in the house.

He was never shy about expressing his emotions around other people, so in his anger he would cry. Eventually, as the situation did not change (the conflict was still there, the toys still needing to be picked up, the game still being lost), his tears would escalate into shouts or harsh words, and any of our attempts to calm him were met with kicks, hits, or pushes away. This was an indication that he had some huge feelings that needed to be offloaded–and this was best done in private, without an audience.

Our words for taking a time-out were, “Take a break.” Either I or my husband would let him know it was time to take a break and that we’d go together. Except, because he was so caught up in those HUGE, overwhelming feelings of the moment, no rational thoughts occurred to him. He was 3 or 4 years old then, and it wasn’t like he’d sit there and go, “OK Mom, you’re right. I do need a break. I need to take time for my brain to feel better. Will you please stay with me?” and calmly take my hand as we went for a time-in.

No. One of us would have to carry a writhing child off to a room (with a door) so we could be alone and have a time-in while the flood of emotions passed.

And not just his emotions, ours too. By the time we had been through the escalating conflict (whatever triggered the meltdown), the initial attempts to calm him, the receiving end of any physical lashings, and the struggle to get him to a calm-down place, my husband and I were feeling quite emotional, too.

For me, as I sat with my back against the door and listened to his tearful, stammering shouts of, “I– want– to– go– OUT!” while preventing his attempts to shove me aside and throw open the door so he could run back to the living room and carry on in front of everyone, I was very aware of my own emotions. My own rising level of anger. I could feel my own shouts within me, crouching just below the surface, ready to spring forth at any moment.

I had to put my head down on my knees and  take deep breaths.

I  had to wait until until he stopped trying to get past me.

I had to repeat, “I’m going to stay here with you.”  No other words than that.

I had to wait until his movements calmed.

I had to wait until his sobs slowed.

I had to wait for him to accept my touch.

I had to wait to say, “I love you.”


And I had to wait even longer than thatwhile he truly calmed down and was ready to rejoin our family and friends and find some resolution of the original problem. But I loved the warmth that swelled in my heart when I looked at my son after those moments. His reach, his touch, his hugs and kisses the rest of the evening told me I had given him just what he needed–an outlet, acceptance, unconditional love. Our connection revived.

Positive parenting doesn’t always look as positive as it sounds. It gets messy. It can be tumultuous. It takes a long time. It’s not always as pleasant as the literature makes it sound. But it does require us to stick with kids through all those messy moments. It tells our kids they aren’t too much for us. We can handle the big feelings; we can handle them.


  1. ryfsmith said,

    Thank you so much for writing this. Our time-ins also involve hitting, pushing, name calling, and throwing things. I get very frustrated too. I thought that I was doing something wrong, or that there must be a better way to deal with it. Your post today makes me feel a lot better. I do have one question: how do you handle a time-in when you are at home alone with two kids? I still need to look after the 2 year old while the 4 year old is upset. I also need to separate them sometimes when they are upset and hitting each other and I’m never sure how to handle that when I’m the only parent at home.

    • Kelly said,

      Yes, that is hard when you’re the only one home…The aggressor is most likely the child with the bigger feelings that need to be offloaded, so that is the child to take aside for emotional release and reconnection. Sometimes it’s happened in our house where I sit on the bed with the upset child while the other one plays on the floor in the same room. Or sometimes I’ve not gone anywhere and let the upset child rage on the floor in the living room (especially since it’s just us at home) while I stay nearby with the other child. You can keep the other child safe and occupied, then, when the upset child is calm, give hugs and move up to the couch or onto a bed to reconnect. You may not be able to be completely alone together, but there are ways to can tend to one while the other is “expressing.”

  2. Katie said,

    I SO needed this today. Thank you ❤

  3. Holly said,

    Thank you so much for sharing. I learn the most from pieces like this that describe real-life scenarios. It is so valuable to learn from your experience!

  4. Dawn said,

    Exact same thing would happen in my house. I was always worried at the time we were doing something wrong. So thank you for this.

  5. SMD said,

    When my son was in the 3-4 age range, I tried a technique where if he hit me or started throwing things, I’d tell him that I would help him stop until he could stop himself. I’d have him sit in front of me with his back against my chest and I’d hold his arms or wrists lightly. He’d struggle but really not very hard, then he’d scream, then cry like crazy, then slump, relax and tell me he loved me. The rest of the day he would be soooo affectionate and happy. I thought it was interesting that when he was started to get crazy, I would tell him, “Nathan, if you can’t stop hitting mommy, I will have to help you stop,” he would look at me and then lightly slap my arm. Like he really wanted me to do this for him. It worked for me but you need a very light touch and it didn’t work for my daughter *at all*.

  6. Danielle said,

    Thank you! My time ins with my 2 year old have not been how most articles have described them. It’s pretty much him crying and not letting me near him, with me trying to stay calm and empathetic whilst wondering what I’m doing wrong. They usually end with a cuddle, but not always, as sometimes I just let him out when he is calm enough as otherwise it just seems to make him more upset, leaving me to wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Your post really helped me to feel less isolated and more positive to keep trying. Thank you.

  7. Stacie said,

    It is so good to know that I am not alone in the fact that I sometimes have to carry my little one off while she is kicking and screaming against me. To be honest, sometimes I feel so embarrassed, like every onlooker is wondering if I know how to deal with my child. But you are right– the warmth of her touch and the sweet smiles she sends my way after I weather the storm with her are priceless, and that alone let’s me know I am handling the situation in just the right way. Thank goodness for time ins!

  8. Bodjetstar said,

    the time spent with your kids is not a waste. some parents spend more time outside their homes than with their children.
    what a nice and inspiring articles. would you not mind if I can add your site to my blogroll on channelofvirtue.wordpress.com

  9. Lilly said,

    Thank you Soooo much. I was about to give up on my new-found gentle parenting ways to revert back to time outs, but your last three paragraphs have straightened up all my heartstrings to keep going on. 🙂

  10. Dealing With My Big Feelings | Busy Mummys said,

    […] Article: Kelly Bartlett’s article on What Does a Time-in Really Look Like […]

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