Time-in (as opposed to time-out) is an important strategy to help parents learn to “connect while correcting” with their children. (For helpful background on the time-in strategy, watch Using Time-In Instead of Time-Out featuring Dr. Karyn Purvis.)
When using the time-in strategy it’s critical to remember that time-in is not intended to punish your child. Instead, time-in is designed to help your child calm and regulate so that he can express his needs (or wants) appropriately. Also, be sure not to jump the gun and resort to time-in when another, lower level strategy (such as playful engagement or choices) might address the behavior more effectively.
But there are times when a time-in is precisely the strategy that is called for. So here are eight keys to help you implement an effective time-in with your child.
1. Develop a plan. In fact, you will need multiple plans. You will need plans for implementing a time-in when you are at home, in public, or any other place you frequently go with your child. If you have multiple children, you will need a plan for effectively implementing a time-in when more than one child needs to be in time-in. You will also need a plan for how to keep the other children in your home occupied while you deal with a child (or children) in time-in. One family chose to have a special basket of toys that can only be played with when the parent is sitting with one of the other children in a time-in. This helped to occupy the other children while the parent finished the time-in. All of these plans will likely differ if you are the only parent present as opposed to if both parents are present – so be sure to share your plans (and agree in advance) with your spouse or others who will be helping you to implement them.
2. Determine a consistent location. Consider designating a consistent place where time-in’s will happen. The location for a time-in can literally be any place that is ideal for helping your child to calm, and it can even change as your child grows older. For example, one family had a “time-in chair” in their living room with another chair right beside it – one for the child to sit in and the other for the parent. As a child gets older the time-in location may move to a bedroom or the kitchen table. In fact, some parents will take an older child for a walk or even do a task or chore together a means to de-escalate the situation and help the child calm. Whatever the case may be, develop a consistent location, especially when using a time-in at home.
3. Stay calm. Let’s be honest – if you (the parent) are not calm, you will be of little use in helping a dysregulated, out-of-control child to calm. So it is critical that you remain calm when implementing a time-in. If a time-in is needed and you are not calm, then “calmly” lead your child to the time-in location and walk away to give yourself a brief time-out. Remember, it takes a calm parent to implement an effective time-in.
4. Keep your focus. In the face of misbehavior it’s all too easy for parents to become distracted and lose focus. In these moments we are tempted to punish, lecture, yell, shame, become angry, or all of the above. Time-in is not designed for any of these things. Instead, remember that time-in is about helping your child calm and regulate so that together you can tackle the problems or issues that led to the need for the time-in. For example, many children are prone to become dysregulated and misbehave when they are hungry, thirsty, or have low blood sugar. In addition, providing a child in time-in with a healthy snack or something to drink can often help them calm and regulate much more quickly. At first this may seem like you are rewarding “bad behavior,” but when you stay focused on the goal and purpose of time-in these steps simply become yet one more way to meet your child’s needs and help her succeed. So remember to stay focused on your child and what she needs and then be willing to meet her where she is to help her move forward.
5. Stay with your child. The primary difference between time in and time out is that time-in is designed to teach your child that you are always there for him and that in a family the “big person” (that would be you) stays with the child to help them solve problems and repair mistakes. This doesn’t mean that you cannot walk away to calm yourself (you should), or that after you and your child have become practiced in using time-in’s you can’t sometimes walk into the next room for a moment (you can). It does mean, however, that early on in your use of this strategy you need to send the message not with your words, but with your presence, that you are sticking with your child most especially when she is struggling or even pushing you away with her behavior. It is not unusual if your child tests you on this at first. But in time your child will receive and begin to believe the message that “we are a team” and that you are committed to her. Along the way don’t lose hope. Parents often report that time-in’s that once lasted well over an hour can quickly become a time-in that lasts only a minute or two – if they will simply be persistent and implement the strategy effectively.
6. Give your child voice. It is critical that a child be given voice even when she is in time-in. But this can be tricky given that she is likely in time-in because she was out-of-control or unable to calm herself. One family navigates this tension by allowing the child to say anything she wants in time-in, as long as she says it with respect. Whoa, do what?!? Yes, that’s right. This means while in time-in the child can talk about how unfair she feels things are, or how much she does not like the decision that was made. But, she must say it with respect, meaning she may not yell, scream, or call names. So for example, she may not yell “You are so mean!” but she may say, in very frustrated tones, “I am mad and I hate it when you do that!” In time these parents reported seeing a dramatic shift as they noticed their child was learning to express her feelings, as in “I feel sad and angry when you won’t let me…” A clear sign of progress for sure. This is no doubt a fine line to walk, but giving voice is not optional if you want a child from a hard place to learn to trust. In addition, many parents allow the child to use her words to indicate once she is calm and ready to resolve the situation. Sharing power with a child by allowing her to tell you she is ready with a simple, calm “I’m ready” can be a very effective way to help her learn to recognize that she is calm again and able to begin to move forward.
7. Finish with success. Many parents have learned to use time-in as an opportunity to help their child not only calm and regulate, but also finish with success. By incorporating a re-do after your child is calm and regulated, you can give him an opportunity to learn (through body memory) how to get it right and then praise him for doing so. For example, if the behaviors that escalated and led to the time-in started with a request from a mom to her son to turn off the TV and start his homework, the mom might want to return and replay the scenario (complete with asking her son to turn off the TV) and praise him when he gets it right. She could even offer him a “reward” this time around, as in “would you like me [mom] to stop cooking and come sit with you while you get started on your homework?” Unconventional for some, but highly effective with many children who simply do not have the brain development, relational maturity, or the practice and competence at navigating their needs in healthy ways. But remember, a re-do is only appropriate and effective once your child is calm and regulated, so don’t rush into it. Depending on the situation and your child’s needs, the re-do may not happen immediately (or, in some cases, at all).
8. It’s not over until it’s over; but when it’s over, it’s over. Remember that it’s not over until it’s over. Many families use the “3 C’s” outlined by Dr. Karyn Purvis – changed behavior, connection, and contentment – as a good measure of when it’s over. In addition, parents should place a high value on the need to repair the mistakes that were made by seeking and giving forgiveness. But keep in mind, this applies to all involved – it is not unusual that a parent might need to seek forgiveness from the child as well. If this is case, parents should lead by example and offer an unconditional apology for any mistakes they made in responding to their child. But when it’s over it’s over! No pouting, no sulking, no grudges. It’s over. Once your child is calm and you and he are re-connected, you have accomplished your goal. It’s time to move on and begin looking for new opportunities to connect with your child.
So you may be wondering how a time-in actually comes to conclusion? One family ends most time-in’s something like this: the parent sits next to the child until the child is able to calmly say he’s “ready”; if his facial expressions and overall affect confirm that he is in fact ready, the parent bends down in front of him and gently takes his hands (if the child has been very upset but is now calm, the parent may even offer a gentle and nurturing hug if the child will agree); the parent asks to see the child’s eyes and asks him to talk about what happened and how he could handle the situation differently (keeping in mind that much grace is given during this conversation; it is not intended to be an inquisition or a verbal lecture); forgiveness is sought and graciously given (by everyone who needs to repair their mistakes); and, as appropriate, a re-do is offered and the child is praised for getting it right.
Sound too good to be true? Well, give it a try and see. There is no doubt that using a time-in effectively takes lots of practice – for both parent and child. But many parents with children of all ages and stages of development can attest to the connecting and correcting power of an effective time-in.
For a summary of these keys to an effective time-in, download Keys to an Effective Time-In At-A-Glance. For further reading on how one mom has effectively implemented the time-in strategy, check out Tona Ottinger’s blog post “Time In” and Our “Time In Bin”.
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