A parenting strategy that works
By Barb Drotos, LICSW
Many of us are familiar with the "time out" technique that became very popular in the 1980's and is still quite commonly used. It is used for many reasons, typically when a child is misbehaving, hyperactive, or when you, as the parent, need a break due to your child's difficult behavior. In fact, the term "time out" is one that is understood by people of every age, gender, race, and culture in the United States. We see the strategy used in just about every public setting as well as in the home. Haven't we all seen at least one parent use this in the grocery store or the local park? There are times when we see time out used when a parent is calm and organized and there are times we have seen this used when a parent is angry, shouting, and out of control.
The big question is... does it work? It almost seems unpatriotic or against the grain to suggest that it might not work. Does it work for all children? Well, time out, when implemented in a calm and organized manner consistently, can indeed work for many children. It does not work with many children who are adopted. It often does not work in the initial stages of adoption and for children who have attachment difficulties. A nice guide is to try a strategy and if it does not work when implemented consistently and calmly, then it is simply NOT for your child. I am never surprised when I hear that time out does not work for children in adoption. Other strategies do work and are less known.
One technique is learning how to "TIME IN" instead of timing out. It is a counterintuitive approach. Many effective approaches to parenting children with attachment difficulties are counterintuitive. Not every child who is adopted has serious attachment difficulties, but it is very common for adopted children to have some level of attachment challenge. They have had at least one significant attachment trauma. That is, a move from their birth family to your family. And, in many cases, two or more moves have occurred. When these moves are done with sensitivity and nurturing care, a child can and will recover from this. "Timing in" helps in many ways. It helps the child build a deep connection and trust with you as their parent while also teaching appropriate boundaries and behavior.
So the big question remains... what is "timing in?" There are some guidelines but the best way to describe the technique is through example, such as the one below.
Billy is 8 years old. He was adopted from Guatemala at the age of 13 months. This afternoon, he snuck outside to play when you asked him to stay indoors for awhile. He also brought the cat outside (which Billy knows infuriates you because it is an indoor cat). He has taken a stick and is writing on the side of the house, chipping away at the paint. There is now a three foot long area that is a mess. When you go outside and see this, you confront him and he giggles. You find yourself boiling mad!
With the timing out method, you would put Billy into a time out for a period of time. Generally, one minute for each year of age - so, about 8 minutes. You tell him what he has done wrong and he may need to apologize afterwards.
With timing in, the following scenario occurs:
You say (as calmly but firmly as possible), "Billy, it is clear that you need my support and supervision right now. It is my job to make sure that everyone and everything is safe in the family. So, I need you to be close to me this afternoon. Let's say until dinner (which is two hours away). You'll need to stay close by, in the same room where I am. I know this is hard. I will help you. You need my support right now."
Billy says, "I don't need support! I want to go out and play, Mom!"
You respond "Well, right now I am doing the dishes and then I need to start making dinner. You need to be in the same room with me. You can bring crayons and paper, or one of your books. Let's go get some from your room. When dinner is over, if you still want to play outside, you can go, but I will need to go with you."
"Billy, what you did to the house was not safe. It was destructive and the cat was not safe outdoors. This weekend, we will need to paint and fix the house together. For today, it looks like you need me to be right by your side. I love you and want you, the house, and the cat to be safe."
The message in the "Time in" method is that the child needs more support and supervision. You are therefore going to provide it. It asks for closeness. It asks for connection. It demands that the child come closer to you to remain supported and safe. For children in adoption, this can be the scariest request for them. It can be the most "threatening" request for them, as they perceive it, if they are not yet fully connected. Not having a healthy attachment to you yet, this is a frightening but healthy discipline measure that helps them to practice closeness. TIME OUT gives the child what is emotionally easy for them. That is, distance is easy for them. It is an easy consequence and does not teach. For children with attachment difficulties, timing in gives them the opportunity to practice closeness when they need it the most - when they are acting out and struggling.
For parents, timing in is not easy. It is difficult, it is time consuming, and it requires a tremendous amount of self control. It asks that you maintain your composure and manage your tone, posture, and emotions during times when you may feel like you have no energy left. However, it is a technique that builds upon itself beautifully. It fosters attachment, it sends a non-shaming message to children, and as you practice it, it becomes easier and more natural. Timing in is a technique that brings out the best in you as a parent - patience, nurturing, and planful, educated responses to your children. You will find out what a truly amazing parent you can be!
Some guidelines for TIMING IN
- Keep a calm demeanor. This means a calm tone of voice. Speak slowly and clearly.
- Be aware of your body language. Relax your muscles and take a deep breath. It may help to bend over and speak "eye to eye" with your child at their height/level.
- Communicate to the child that they need to be closer right now. They need your support and supervision. Their behavior is showing you that they need this right now. Make the connection between their behavior and the need for more support.
- This is not punishment or shaming. It is discipline, which to teach. It is okay to tell your child that you are angry, but move on to let them know what happens next. They need to remain close to you right now.
- Your child may not like this AT ALL. This makes sense. Misbehavior often distances children from their parents and you are saying the opposite by conveying "you need more of me right now." This actually gives them INCENTIVE to behave because the closeness is not comfortable for them.
- Give your child something to do while they are timing in. Give them a choice . They can help you (with whatever you are doing, such as vacuuming) or they can do ___________. They can have an activity to do that is productive, enjoyable, but certainly not over stimulating and not their favorite activity. You do not want them to be miserable and you don't want them to have a blast. You are aiming for a neutral activity that keeps them engaged and busy.
- If you are "stuck" for what to say to your child, stay with the theme of safety. Your job is to keep the whole family, the pets, and the house safe. This includes them. DO NOT get into a long v=conversation with your child. Let them know what the plan is and then move it forward. Have a quiet, "matter of fact" confidence.
- Your child needs to wait for you to be done with whatever you are doing (run errands, do chores, read your book, etc.) before the time in period is over and you help them move on to their next activity of choice. In the meantime, they remain close to you, in the same room. Preferably, this is within ten feet of you.
Most importantly, know that this gets easier as you practice the technique. It will feel natural and you will see your child improve in the quality of their attachment. They will also comply more often and your confidence as a nurturing, effective parent will bloom.