Point Break

How parents can make time outs positive.

In positive discipline, time outs have an important and effective role. They are not used as a thinking tool or a punitive reaction to an inappropriate action. Rather, they are used in a proactive way, much like those taken in sports games. A time out is a chance to pause, regroup and collect ourselves, as children and parents. Time outs are effective when they allow children to feel better. Used non-punitively, time outs teach acceptance and management of strong emotions and serve as a helpful discipline tool.

When emotions run high, we need time to calm down and feel better, enabling us to “improve our game.” Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time Out (Prima Publishing), advocates, “Children do better when they feel better.” The following pointers turn time outs into positive experiences.

Talk about feelings. When no one is currently distressed, talk to your child about moments when he or she has been really upset. Let your child know that everyone gets angry, sad and frustrated sometimes and feeling these ways is OK. Make sure your child knows that feelings are always acceptable. But some emotions feel unpleasant, and it helps to know what to do when such feelings arise.

Designate a feel-good spot. Ask for your child’s input on where the two of you could create a feel-good place. It might be in your child’s bedroom or on the couch in the living room. To some children, going into a bedroom might seem too isolating, and they would prefer to be able to see a parent. Other children might choose their room because it can keep out younger siblings. Whether it is a bedroom, living room, bathroom or a spot in the kitchen, the area should be considered a place to regroup and calm down for your child. Have your youngster brainstorm a name for this calming spot.

Create a comfort basket. Find a basket and fill it with items to soothe your upset child. Certified positive discipline associate Glenda Montgomery advocates the placement of a comfort basket in feel-good spots. “If a child has any special toy or stuffed animal that he likes to hold when he’s upset, definitely add it to the comfort basket,” she says. Blankets, books and musical CDs are all excellent items to put in comfort baskets, as are lumps of clay to pound, exercise bands to stretch and squishy balls to squeeze. Older children may like to keep a journal or sketchbook in their baskets, or even a bottle of bubble bath to use. If you’re allocating a large area or a whole room as the feel-good spot, your youngster could also include bigger items such as a punching bag or trampoline. The idea is to fill the area with items that help your child to relieve stress and begin to calm down. Some children benefit from a physical outlet, while others prefer emotional outlets.

Ask about preferences. When your child gets emotionally overwhelmed and upset, and it’s time to put the feel-good spot to use, ask if your child would like to go alone to the spot or if he or she would like you to come, too. Children have different preferences for this. Some kids may feel banished if they are expected to go alone, and would be more secure if you’re there supporting them. Others need to be left alone to decompress. It is important to respect your child’s preferences, and understand that these may change over the years.

Deborah Thompson, a mother of three and an administrator of an online positive discipline discussion forum, has been using positive discipline for 11 years. She adapts the positive time out techniques to each of her children to best suit various situations. “I have used the car, a bathroom, even an out-of-the-way spot in the grocery store when I’ve needed to take a cooling-down moment with my child,” Thompson says. She adds that the most important element of positive time outs is focusing on reconnection. “Once my children have had some time to cool off, I always make sure I reconnect with them afterwards.” Reconnection may be in the form of a loving and wordless hug, an empathic conversation or a cooperative activity like playing a board game or cooking together. It’s a gesture that tells your child, “You were mad, and that’s OK. I love you no matter how you feel.”

Teaching children to calm down after being in a highly emotional state begins at birth. Positive discipline trainer and author Arlene Raphael states, “Whenever a parent picks up a crying baby with the intent to help calm her, she is experiencing a positive time out.” Holding and comforting an upset child stimulates calm-inducing brain chemicals that help regulate emotions.

As children grow, they can become more proactive participants in deciding how a time out looks and feels. And parents can ensure that time outs are truly in their child’s best interest if they ask for input, work together to understand everyone’s needs, remain flexible and keep in mind the big picture: That in positive discipline, a time out is just a way of helping a child feel better so the child can do better.