Of course we all know about the timeout, the place where a kid is sent to think about what she did wrong. For some kids, a moment away from the source of conflict can help them calm down and refocus. But for others, particularly those who have experienced trauma, time out is not the best option.
Think about children who live in an unpredictable environment. Sometimes their mom is around, and other times she disappears and leaves the kids with their grandma. Or sometimes the family has money for food and activities, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes their dad plays sports with them at the park, and sometimes he drinks and lashes out. When you picture this sort of unpredictable environment, do you picture a child who is able to process emotionally complex experiences? Or are you picturing a child who might have a hard time making sense of conflict in the world?
When a child is sent to timeout, the idea is that she’ll go there and think about the conflict and try to find ways that she could have acted differently. This is a pretty big thing to ask a young child to do, and even harder still for a kid who has experienced trauma of some kind. Instead, timeout sometimes feels like another adult sending them away for bad behavior.
Instead of timeout, a better option is a time in. Time in is exactly what it sounds like – instead of sending a child away, the adult sits with the child and processes the experience.
For a time in, it’s great to have an area such as a calm-down corner or a relaxation room where the child can go that physically indicates that this time will be spent helping her calm down. But if space doesn’t allow that, or you’re out and about, you can just take a few steps to the side and get down to the child’s level.
It’s great to start by asking the child to name her feelings. (If you have a feelings chart, the calm down corner is a great place to display it!) She might let you know that she’s angry, or frustrated, or sad, or scared. If she can’t name her feelings, you can name them for her. “Wow, your face looks like you are feeling very upset/angry/frustrated. Is that correct?” Then you can talk through her feelings without accusation and help her make sense of what happened. Once she’s feeling a little calmer, you can ask her what might help her feel better. She can hold a stuffed animal, or blow bubbles, or use a glitter ball, or she might want you to gently rub her back. It might turn out that she actually does need alone time, and that she’d like to sit there quietly by herself for a couple of minutes. That’s perfectly fine – there’s nothing saying that a child can’t sit alone and calm down. It’s just important that sitting alone is not the only experience that she has.
So next time a timeout is in order, think about trying a time in instead. Not only will the child better process the experience, but she’ll feel better comforted and cared for at the same time. And that’s a win-win.