If you’ve been around here for a while then you know I’m not a fan of fear-based anything – fear-based parenting, fear-based scripts, or fear-based compliance – when I did a deep-dive on the “time-out” I expected to find a lot of justification for fear. When in fact, I found quite the opposite.
First, hear me when I say that I have a fundamental problem with the premise that time-out is used when a child “deliberately is noncompliant”. I’ve seen enough “deliberate noncompliance” to know that when a child engages in some sort of “testing” behavior, they are, in fact, asking the parent for help to feel safe and/or connected. I also believe that a foundational mindset shift away from obedience and compliance and into a collaborative relationship is important. For the purpose of this article, I want those two caveats to overlay the common themes I found between my paradigm and this traditional parenting technique.
Here’s where it got interesting: in the “time-out” model, the parent offers a structured, predictable response, which helps the child feel safe. Yes, the structured response is a threat for compliance, but what powerful feedback for parents to know: that a consistent, predictable, calm response can help a child regulate. This lightbulb ignited the idea that maybe we can find common themes between this technique and the gentle parenting mindset to help bridge the gap, calm the controversy, and get to the heart of effective discipline.
Takeaway 1: Find a line that works for you.
In our house we use a lot of “Uh-oh, what’s going on?” or “I see you’re trying to….” or “It seems like…” I lead with a sound of curiosity and/or bring awareness to their body. My length of verbal response is determined by the urgency of the situation. An arm cocked and ready to throw is much more urgent than a whine of displeasure: the more urgent, less words, more movement.
Takeaway 2: Predictable and confident leadership is important.
We have to mean what we say, say what we mean, and say it kindly. We are NOT being kind or gentle if we tell our child 10 times to “stop” something before we go over to them and help them stop. We are being passive, thereby, confusing the child. Confusion doesn’t feel safe. If something is enough of a priority to verbally assert a limit, we must be already moving to enforce it. When we get to our child to help them, we must lead with calm, confident energy and either say or act out a predictable script, for example: “I won’t let you hit. I will keep us safe.” I say this has I’m creating physical space (if needed).
Takeaway 3: Connection is the foundation.
Parent-child connection and reconnection is critical. And if that connection is PREDICTABLE, it helps the child reset and feel safe. This is why rituals, routines, and connection games are so important. For more connection game ideas, check-out my “Play” highlight on Instagram.
Takeaway 4: Connection is not contingent upon proximity.
We do not have to sit side-by-side with our children to be “connected” to them. In fact, often times, that can escalate the situation. Some children don’t want an attachment figure so close when they’re experiencing big feelings. That’s ok. Respect their need for space. There’s a big difference between storming away from a child while yelling and calmly backing up. “I’m giving you space. I’m right here when you need me.” If you attune to your child and watch their nonverbal cues, you can tell if you stay too close or get too far away. Don’t let irrational scripts of “they’ll feel so abandoned” creep into your head. So much of this is about ENERGY and intention.
Takeaway 5: Sometimes we have to acknowledge our humanity and consider “good/better/best” versus harmful.
Would it be amazing if I could regulate through every single one of MY big feelings and my children’s big feelings?
Is that realistic?
Sometimes, the BEST option is for me to walk away, take a break. If I can muster a line such as “I’m feeling like I’m about to lose it. I need space to calm myself down.” Great. In the very beginning, when I struggled with postpartum hormones, I couldn’t. I just needed to walk away. Did my child feel a little scared? Probably.
Did they become paralyzed with fear, like what WOULD have happened if I would have stayed and screamed or forcibly grabbed them? No.
Parenting is hard. Parenting is even harder if a parent has a trauma history, little or no support, struggles to meet basic needs, and doesn’t understand child development. With low resources, in the face of sheer exhaustion, or RAGE, sometimes a child being left alone is the safest, least damaging, GOOD option. Is it the BEST option? No. The best option would be to support parents, have adequate resources for families, treat trauma, value early childhood as preventative public health policy. But, that’s not the world we live in.
As someone who has struggled with postpartum anxiety, manifested as rage and a trauma history, I know first hand how important it is to just walk away sometimes. The first rule is to do no harm. Sometimes, in the face of real life, the “good” option is the best option.
On the flip side, as someone who works in the conscious/gentle parenting world, I work with a lot of parents who are trying to operate gently through a fear lens.
- Fear of damaging their children.
- Fear of their own demons.
- Fear of being too harsh.
- Fear of “losing” connection.
Y’all. We break connection all the time. It’s impossible to respond to every connection bid. Let that go. Let go of the fear of not being enough. Tell yourself: “I am enough.” If you’re someone of Christian faith, we believe we can’t be enough and we celebrate our Savior for loving us JUST as we are. If we are enough for Jesus, we are enough for this world.
If we live in fear, we cannot be a confident leader. Accepting that we will make mistakes is a part of this process. Acknowledge that sometimes our best efforts are “good”. Are they “best practice”? Maybe not. But they’re the best we have available in that moment. This is what I appreciate about time-out side: the acknowledgement that we can take breaks without shame. We don’t have to call it time-out, we don’t have to “threaten” with it. We can just take it, as needed, and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes, it’s the BEST option.
Knowing all of this – the importance of confident leadership, the need for predictability, the need for scripts to feel empowered, I have resources to help you develop a plan and I’m developing even more. I provide as much information for free as I can because I see it as my contribution to public health and effort to change the world.