“Time Out” and “Time In”

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Someone recently asked me about “time out” and whether I thought it was useful.  Like many of my answers, it began with “It depends…”

Time out is a particularly useful option if you or your child have fully flipped your lid.  If fear / anger have taken over, then the reptile / survival brain is running the show.  In that state, there is no possibility of having a conversation.  And any attempt to connect (no matter how lovingly presented) will be experienced as controlling or dominating, and likely resisted.

So time out in this situation is useful as it gives the adult or the child a bolt-hole to calm yourself down in, prior to talking and fixing what went wrong.  As an example, I had been doing 2 hours of work on the computer at home when my 4 yo came in and started pressing keyboard buttons.  Suddenly the “spinning wheel of death” replaced the pointer…and I flipped my lid.  Now, logically, whose fault was it that I hadn’t been backing up my work?  Mine.  And do 4 yo’s press things?  Of course.  But in my flipped state, the logic made no difference, and I was furious.

Fortunately, I was aware enough to go into time out.  I got out of my chair, walked out the front door, and paced up and down the street for a minute.  Once calmed, I re-entered the house, and we fixed the problem.  What would have happened though if I stayed in the room instead of going into time out?  Disaster.

So time out is not a punishment, though your child may perceive it as such at the time.  Rather, it is logically a place to go to calm down in prior to working out how to fix the problem.  As long as there is reconnection and repair after, time out is helpful.  If however there is no reconnection or repair after, then “time out” may be experienced as loneliness or rejection, leading to more insecurity and the emotions and behaviours associated with insecurity may increase.

If your child has not fully flipped, or is only on the way to flipping out, then “time in” may be the better option.  Much of our children’s strong emotions come from feeling insecure (not feeling safe enough, good enough or that they get enough).  So though their reptile brain wants to dominate or avoid you, their mammal brain wants to be close to you and be understood by you.  If someone has fully flipped into reptile mode then time out may be needed.  But if not fully flipped, then a time in (togetherness) is more useful to achieve the eventual repair. “VO5” is a type of “time in” as you Validate, Offer yourself, and repeat the offer a bit later if initially rejected.

So if someone has totally lost it, time out and away from each other may be most useful with the promise, “When we are calm we will talk and fix it”.

But if not fully flipped, “time in” together will meet their attachment needs, and is a good way of preparing for the eventual conversation to fix what went wrong.  The chapter 3 playlist on my website covers all this in more detail for those interested.  You can access it from here.

Andrew