As parents begin to seek a more gentle method of discipline, they often start by dropping the obvious punishments, such as spanking or removal of unrelated privileges. Finding themselves without tools to enforce their instructions, they begin to rely heavily on traditional time-outs in place of their former punishments.
The traditional form of time-out involves sending a child to a particular spot (their bedroom, a "naughty chair", the corner, etc) for a particular length of time (often one minute per year of age) in order to "think about what they've done." For most children, however, the time is spent in anger, stewing over the apparent injustice of their punishment. When used arbitrarily or too often, it prevents the child from understanding the true consequences of their action and fails to get to the root of the behaviour. The overall message becomes one of rejection rather than teaching, causing the child to withdraw and damaging the parent/child relationship.
Sometimes a child does need time and space to be alone in order to cool off. In those instances, rather than setting a timer, it is preferable to allow the child to return when s/he is feeling in control once again. "You may not continue to hit/kick/speak rudely/etc. Go cool down in your room and return when you are able to treat your family kindly." This is followed with a calm discussion and reconnection. However, this method works best for an older child who has already been taught the skills needed to know how to calm themselves down, who has previously exhibited the need to be alone in order to do this, and for whom being alone is not a frightening event. Many other children and situations require a different response.
While there is no single answer to cover all circumstances, having a variety of tools will allow parents to best meet the needs of their unique child in their unique situation. Here we will explore ten alternatives to time-outs; as always, I welcome your additional gentle discipline tools in the comments below.
Children must be actively parented through their intense emotions in order to learn how to process and move past them in a healthy way. A time-in is a prime opportunity for this type of teaching, providing the child with vital skills that will serve them throughout their life.
Rather than depriving children of their parents' attention, a time-in is time together to build relationship, communication, and cooperation. It places the parent and child on the same side rather than pitting them against one another.
During a time-in, the parent and child can focus on working through the situation. It is a time of connection that includes both physical touch and eye contact. The parent can teach the child a variety of calming techniques (deep breathing, drawing, physical outlets, etc) and then move on to discussing the emotions behind the behaviour. What led up to it? What are better alternatives for next time?
A time-in can also be used proactively. In this sense, the parent ensures the child receives focused attention at regular intervals, thereby strengthening the parent/child relationship and meeting the child's emotional needs. This builds cooperation while reducing negative attention-seeking behaviour.
2. Comfort Corner
A comfort corner is an opportunity for the child to regroup in a calming environment, surrounded by things that bring them comfort. A comfort corner may include pillows, blankets, books, stuffed animals, water, snacks, a mind jar, a notepad and pencil, music, or any other item that brings the child comfort or helps them to refocus. It should be private but not isolated; it may be located in a corner of the main living area, in a bedroom, in a small alcove, on a comfortable chair, or even tucked away in a tote bag to be pulled out when needed.
A comfort corner is often used, particularly with young children or when first introduced, in conjunction with a time-in. Again, this is an opportunity to assist the child in dealing with their intense emotions, teaching them the skills needed to regroup and refocus. A child must be taught how to calm down and regroup before you can request that they do so. The goal of the comfort corner is for the child to learn how to do these things for themself.
Rather than a punishment, the comfort corner should be a positive experience, a place of calm and comfort. When the child is in need of a quiet break, direct them to the comfort comfort. If they protest, guide them there for some cuddling. "I can see you are having trouble controlling yourself. Let's go to the comfort corner together and I will show you how you can help yourself to feel better." The child is free to leave the comfort corner when s/he feels they are ready.
Parents can model this practice when they are feeling frustrated or angry. "I am feeling ___. I am going to go sit somewhere quiet and listen to music for a few minutes until I feel more calm." This is modelling the essential life skill of recognizing when you need to remove yourself from a situation to calm down, regain your composure, and correct your attitude.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." A parent can set the child up for success by ensuring the child's physical needs (healthy diet, adequate sleep, physical activity, sensory outlets) and emotional needs (love, attention, security) are met. Consider the child's environment as well. Excess clutter or noise can negatively impact a child's behaviour; anger and tension will have negative effects as well.
4. Look Beyond the Behaviour
Look beyond the child's behaviour to its underlying cause or driving need. Is the child hungry? tired? hurt? lonely? Is the child teething? Does the child need a physical or sensorial outlet? Does a growing child need additional responsibilities to challenge and occupy their growing minds? A traditional time-out deals with only the symptom; move beyond that to deal with the root cause.
5. Playful Parenting
Playful parenting can be an ideal way to diffuse tension and regain cooperation. Play can also be used to help a child work through their feelings. Rather than engaging in a power struggle, lighten the situation with silliness. Role-playing, task races, and exaggerated threats are some common playful parenting techniques.
6. Distraction and Redirection
Sometimes a simple distraction or redirection is sufficient to deal with the situation; not every incident requires a direct head-on approach. As with playful parenting, this is an ideal way to circumvent a power struggle, given the right circumstances. In the same vein, a change in the environment can shift everyone into a better mood: head outdoors, run a bath, go to the library, or put on some music.
Sometimes a child just wants to be heard. Take a moment to empathize with the child. Listen to, reflect back, and validate their feelings. When necessary, assist the child in expressing those feelings in a healthy, appropriate, and acceptable manner. "Try again" is a useful script for a child who has already been coached on appropriate expressions of feelings and just needs the reminder to use a proper tone.
8. Put the Ball in Their Court
Empower the child to take responsibility for rectifying the situation. Depending on the age and particular circumstances, this can take a variety of forms, including (but not limited to) the following:
- offer them a choice between two or three acceptable alternatives
- use the "when...then..." script ("when your room is clean, then we can go to the park")
- sit down and brainstorm solutions to a problem with them, allowing them to be a full participant in the process
- give them the responsibility for righting the wrong (cleaning up the mess, making amends to the hurt party, following through on given instructions, etc)
The goal is to empower them to accept responsibility for their actions, think for themselves, consider the alternatives, make a decision, and follow through with solving the situation.
9. Talk and Problem-Solve
In a quiet, calm voice, talk through the situation if the child is the right frame of mind for a discussion. Seek their perspective on the matter and offer your own. If emotions are running too high in the heat of the moment, talk through the situation later after both parent and child have had time to calm down and regroup. The purpose of our parenting should be problem-solving and teaching, not behaviour-training through consequences or punishments.
10. Shift Perspective
Sometimes we allow our own feelings and frustrations to erupt on our families. We overreact to innocent childish behaviour, wanting them out of our hair so we can have a few precious moments to be still and think. Sometimes it's us who need to take a time-out of sorts.
Regardless of the situation, a parent can begin by taking a deep calming breath. Walk away from the situation if you need to calm down, regain your composure, or gain perspective on the situation. Is the situation as urgent or important as your initial reaction would suggest? Are you able to separate the child's behaviour from the child themselves? What do you want to teach your child, going forward, through the way you handle this situation? Keep in mind that the goal is to find a solution, not a consequence or punishment.
Once you have regrouped, go back to your child and request a do-over. Be willing to apologize if your initial reaction warrants it. Get down on your child's level and reconnect with a hug. Take a moment to hear their point of view, and then seek a solution together.
A special note about aggressive behaviour: Most hitting can be prevented by consistent action when the child is very small. The first time a toddler swings with the intent to hit, catch their arm mid-swing and firmly say, "no hitting; hitting hurts". Then gently stroke your cheek with the child's hand while saying "gentle". Repeat consistently. This nips most hitting in the bud, with a simple "gentle" being sufficient to remind them to use their hands gently.
However, sometimes hitting behaviour will persist, appear at later stages, or simply occur in the heat of the moment. When a child hits another child, a logical consequence is removal from play with the other children. "You hit, you sit." This gives you an opportunity to comfort the child who was hit. You can then attend to the child who did the hitting, reiterating that hitting is unacceptable and allowing them the opportunity to explain the situation (if they are old enough) and/or calm down with you until they are in control of themselves and ready to resume playing with the other children. This can be used in conjunction with the techniques listed above.
When a child hits a parent, the parent can state clearly and firmly that they will not allow the child to hurt them. This is an excellent opportunity to model strong boundaries. A particularly aggressive child may need to be restrained until they have regained control. Once the child is calm, teach the child what they can do to express their anger (drawing "angry pictures", writing out their feelings, talking through the situation, doing an "angry dance", etc). Anger is acceptable; hitting is not.
Positive Time-Out by Jane Nelsen
Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish