Try Time-in instead of Time-out

by Consuela Hendriks

How often do you use time-outs when your child doesn’t behave the way you’d like them to? It happens more often than you probably realize.


What’s a time-out?

Time-outs are not just that naughty chair or sending a child to their room. Time-outs can present in more ways. It’s about disconnecting from the child. Creating distance. Distance from you as a parent/caregiver or from what the child is attached to. It is about separation based discipline.

So, isolation is not the only act that is considered a time-out, other examples are taking something away as a punishment, sending a child away to ‘think’ about what they’ve done, ignoring behavior as a way of extinction (and therefore also ignoring the child), threatening to leave if the child does not come with us (‘ok bye, I’m going’), counting to 3 ‘or else..’.


Short-term effect

In the short term, this may work magically, the child stops the ‘undesirable’ behavior. But why? Because they’re afraid, afraid to lose what they’re attached to. And the only way to maintain or get it back is to stop the behavior (or do what they’re told to). Not because they’ve learned to solve the problem or because they’ve had time to think it over. This ability doesn’t develop until much later (as the prefrontal cortex further develops). The child ‘behaves’ because they prioritize the relationship.


Long-term effects

In the long run, the child learns something completely different: that they should not express themselves, because then the relationship with significant people (or things) is at stake. It teaches them that the relationship is only maintained under certain conditions. That love is conditional. If you misbehave, love will be withdrawn. They’ll learn it’s not safe to express themselves. That you can only show the happy, cheerful emotions.



Why not try the opposite: Invite the child to express overwhelming emotions in your presence? Use time-in instead of time-out. Do not send the child the message that you cannot handle their emotions or don’t want them to express these, but instead, send the message that it’s ok to express every possible emotion and that you are their safe place. Show them you’re not afraid of what needs to come out. Show them you’re right there and willing to regulate emotions together with them (co-regulation). Make clear there’s no need to work for love but that they can rest in your love.

And of course, not every child accepts closeness when having big emotions. Giving space is allowed, especially if initiated by them. The point is that they feel a clear invitation to express emotion in your presence. Offer your presence, your arms to cry in, your listening ear, stay nearby.


Time-in ≠ Permissive parenting

A time-in doesn’t mean you’re giving in. It does not mean that you’re letting go of boundaries (for example with aggressive behaviors). The boundary remains, but the emotion it evokes is not disqualified or downplayed.


Emotion regulation

You can’t expect young children to self-regulate their big emotions. You can’t expect them to have problem-solving abilities yet. In such emotional episodes, you are their thinking brain, their co-regulator.


If you yourself are very emotional, it is also very comforting if someone offers a listening ear, and when someone is there for you. Or should they send you to your room to cool down?


How does this relate to sleep?

What does this have to do with sleep? The separation from the parent/caregiver faced at bedtime evokes emotion. No wonder (in fact very intuitive) children will try to keep us close. It’s important to let children know you are there, always, even when separated. As in any relationship, the trick is to hold on to the connection, even if you’re at a distance. This takes time and development, but if it’s not there during the day, it will certainly not be felt at night.