Children who experience early stress, moves, and transitions often show the effects of their experiences by becoming dysregulated. They may appear to be out-of-control, irritable, or just plain “not fun to be around.” During these moments, parents may consider removing them from the area or placing them in “time-out.” How many of us haven’t heard these common expressions?
“Go to your room and come out when you’re under control.”
“Sit on the couch [away from me] until the timer goes off. I’ll set the timer for one minute for each year. Since you’re six, you get six minutes.”
“Go sit in the naughty chair til I tell you to come out.”
Unfortunately, a “time-out” may not help children who’ve spent the early years of their lives under stress. Early in life, a child learns to self-regulate by being in close proximity to a single primary caregiver. When a child experiences stress, moves or transitions during this time, the experiences leading to self-regulation may be compromised. How can a child learn self-regulation when the primary caregiver disappears or continually changes? For some children, a time-out may even recreate the situation they experienced in early life. Being sent to one’s room alone may trigger feelings of abandonment similar to those they may have experienced in institutional care. Many of our children have spent far too much time away from a single, stable, self-regulated primary caregiver. They need more time in our proximity, not less.
So if “time-outs” are OUT, what is another alternative for a dysregulated child?
One alternative, a “time-in,” can be very effective. Although there are many possible ways to set up a time-in, the basic idea is that the dysregulated child stays close to a primary caregiver, in effect creating some of the close proximity that was missed early in life. In order for a time in to be effective, the primary caregiver must be calm and regulated herself. A parent who is upset or agitated is not likely to calm a child. Time-ins can be accomplished in a variety of ways:
- The parent sits on the couch, perhaps to do a little activity—sew, read, listen to music with headphones, do a crossword puzzle—while the child sits cross-legged at the adult’s feet. In this version, it isn’t necessary to give attention to the child; the goal is to keep the child close.
- The child sits next to the parent on a chair. They face each other so that the parent can smile at the child, physically connect with a pat or a hug, and talk (“I love you,” or “Thanks for letting me know that you needed some close time by mommy. I’m glad you’re near me.”)
- The child sits on a small throw rug within a few feet of the parent while the parent continues with daily tasks. The parent may cook dinner, for example, while the child sits on a bathroom rug (with non-slip backing so the rug doesn’t slide) in the middle of the kitchen floor. Alternately, in this situation, the child could also sit on a kitchen chair, facing mom, while mom goes about her work.
- A small child might also be worn on the back while an older child could help with the parent's current task (i.e. peel these carrots while I cook dinner.)
As a dysregulated child derives a feeling of calm and safety from close proximity to a parent, she will, over time, begin to regulate more herself. Although some children may protest loudly in response to this close time, we’ve noticed that many of our children enjoy time-in. Emotionally, they may feel younger than their chronological age and react positively to the security of being near a parent. For many, time-in does not feel like a punishment (nor should it be) but instead feels like a safe place to calm down.
Doesn’t a time-in reward bad behavior?
I think the difference is in the issues of the child you're directing it toward. A child who is struggling with attachment/trauma is struggling with relationship. To pull them in teaches them more about relationship...which in this case is the root cause of the behavior.
I would look at any discipline method as being one of teaching. So for me, the purpose of a time-out wouldn't be punishment, but to teach a child something. If the time-out doesn't teach what I intend it to or alleviate the behaviors that need to be alleviated, then I look for something that does teach what I need it to.
Time-ins are by no means a reward but a way of making their worlds smaller, so they feel safer, and have the help they need to regulate...for any child who has a traumatic early history the ability to self-regulate can be more difficult so time-ins meet that need.
Imagine putting a scared infant who is crying into time-out and telling him, "You can be with us again when you calm down." This is an absurd approach...it is the same for a toddler and child who emotionally is a scared infant...the outward behaviors may be different but the behaviors stem from the same primal fear.
Sometimes when my son was exhibiting less-than-pleasant behavior I'd say, "Thank you for letting me know that you need some close time with Mommy." Believe me, he didn't think of this as a reward! But it did help him to regulate and change his behavior in a positive way.
Is a time-in for children who have RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder)?
Yes, RAD, but also any children who have suffered early losses and therefore feel anxious/insecure/unsafe as a result. So often, perplexing behaviors stem from early loss. And yes, the early loss/trauma can definitely cause them to push us away. Pulling them in teaches them that you love them no matter what, but it also can help to regulate them when they cannot regulate themselves. A good book that discusses this more in-depth is The Connected Child by Purvis/Cross.
Time-in can work well for children regardless of whether they have attachment-strain. Often, misbehavior stems from anxiety or insecurity and a time-out will only escalate behaviors because it does not address the root cause of the behavior. Time-ins help children regulate and address the emotional need that Mommy/Daddy always keep them safe. My children were much more able to calm down and learn from a situation after a time-in then they were from a time-out because the time-out did not help them regulate and the emotional need was not fulfilled.
If you are in the middle of doing something, do you stop what you are doing to do a time-in?
Yes. But then I'd use one of the techniques that put the child close to me while I keep working. For example, if my child made a sad choice as I was making dinner I might put a non-slip rug in the middle of the kitchen floor (I could work right around him). He knew he was to stay on the rug. (He had to learn this.) And I'd say something to the effect of, "Thank you for letting me know that you need to be close to Mommy. I'm glad you're right here close for me to hug." Other language that we learned was about "being a good boss of your body." So I could say, "Looks like you're having trouble being a good boss of your body. No problem. You can sit close to Mommy where I can help you to be a good boss of your body." And then I'd give him a quick hug or squeeze on the way back to do my work. I'd periodically check in with him with a touch. But basically he sat on the rug while I kept working.
I would just go on with my business. And he'd sit there, bored, but close to Mommy. The difference between time-in and time-out was at the end of a time-in he was regulated and made wise choices and at the end of a time-out he was still dysregulated. Being away from me did not help him to change his behavior. Being close to me did. (This wouldn't have worked, however, if I had been visibly upset by his behavior. I had to be calm/regulated for it to work.) During most time-ins, I just went about my day business as usual.
BTW, if he was disruptive on the rug, it was just a sign that he needed to be there longer. This was not a "You have X number of minutes to sit there" type of thing. It was a very relaxed..."no problem, Mommy knows you need close time. I'll let you know when you can get up." If he pestered me to get up, he obviously wasn't ready.
How do I do a time-in with my 5 year old who can’t calm down once she gets mad or upset about something?
If I am doing something the child can help with while needing to be close, they help. Meal preparing, helping me dust, helping me wipe down windows, helping me sort laundry, etc. At this point just giving them a job and being close to me at the same time regulates them and then we can talk about it, but if they are out of control completely and cannot calm down they need to just sit and sit close whether it is next to me, at my feet or on my lap...close so I can help them regulate just by my close proximity to encourage them with smiles, touches and hugs as I go about what I am doing.
What do I do with my younger child when the older one is in a time-in?
If the younger child is regulated he can go about what he was doing. The world cannot stop for the one who needs a time-in. However, if the younger one is not regulated, each child can sit close to mom/dad on his own mat. When both of my children needed a small world and I was busy making dinner or something that could not be stopped, I sat them both close to me on their own mat and gave them each one small thing to do on the mat (i.e. a small puzzle, a book, a small container of legos, etc.) If the second child is particularly young, he can be worn on the back in a carrier while mom finishes and sibling sits close to mom.
How does mom stay calm?
It was very important for me to not get upset or look perturbed by his sad choice. It was more like "thanks for letting me know" and back to whatever I was doing. The attitude is not anger or disappointment but “You need to be close. No problem, take all the time you need.” What helps many parents is not to think about the actual behavior or sad choice but what is behind the behavior or sad choice. I think to myself, “He does not feel safe right now.” And that helps me feel empathy instead of frustration. I might also put on some soft, soothing music. Sure it calms the children, but I did it mainly to calm myself.
What does a time-in look like?
- A time-in can look different from situation to situation and even depend on the child and age. The following are some examples:
- I would sit and do a basket hold until they calmed and then turn them around and love on them
- If they were especially dysregulated (and sometimes this was a sensory thing) I would hold them chest to chest, sit on a ball and bounce until they calmed and then love on them.
- Sometimes time-in turned into a holding depending on the situation and severity of the emotional meltdown.
- Sometimes I would realize they needed a smaller world and tell them, "Looks like you need some close time with Mommy" and carry them on my back in a carrier and walk around doing things around the house...cooking, light cleaning, laundry, etc. for a while until I could feel they were more regulated.
- As they got older we used a small bathmat (each child had their own color they chose)...this was their safe place they would go to sit and think, keep close to mom/dad, and make their world smaller. If I was doing something and they needed a time-in I would put the mat close to me and thank them for letting me know they needed some close, quiet time with Mommy. As they became more regulated, they would remain on the mat but I would give a small puzzle, container of legos, or a book.
- Sometimes I am busy and moving about the house...this does not stop a time-in, where I go the child goes with me from room to room...I walk from place to place holding their hand and find them a close place to sit in the new room. Again the attitude is not anger or disappointment but "I know you need to be close...no problem, you can come with me". Some parents have tied a short rope between the child and parent using the beltloops or a soft backpack-type harness.
- If I am doing something the child can help with while needing to be close, they help. Meal preparing, helping me dust, helping me wipe down windows, helping me sort laundry, etc. can keep a child close and help them regulate and we can talk about their feelings.
- If I am not busy, a series of sad choices might indicate that my child needs some close, quality time. I may use the time to sit down with my child and do something quiet together. Read books, do a puzzle, color together, play playdough, etc. If I am busy, the child sits on the mat or helps me, but when I am finished what I need to do and the child is calmer I may use that time for some one-on-one time with my child.
- All time-ins end with time to give and receive love, praise for a great job getting their body and feelings under control, reflecting on feelings that led to the sad choice or behavior, and/or some quiet, quality time with mom/dad.