I Give Time Outs, But Only To One Of My Children

The parenting technique is vilified by some for shaming children, but all kids have different ways of coping

While scrolling through my Facebook timeline, as I am apt to do once or twice (or forty) times a day, I came across a little chair with a built-in clock, and an over-the-top cutesy poem, meant for use during time out. Some people found it cute and tagged those who might agree, while those who didn’t like it just scrolled past and went about their day. 

No, wait, this is Facebook. Those who didn’t like it came out with pitchforks.

There were the usual extremes. It’s hard to find a comment section these days that doesn't cite a lack of spanking as the root cause for all the“special snowflakes” out there. But the majority of nay-sayers focused on time out's being harsh or ineffective for a tantruming child.

Instead, most advocated for 'time in'. Essentially, instead of isolating a child who is having a fit, you talk them through it, hug them, and bring them closer instead of sending them away. The reasoning behind this is that a child who is having a tantrum is not misbehaving but rather having a difficult time dealing with their emotions, and they should never be isolated for this, as it is shaming.

I can get behind this in theory. I absolutely believe that there are two different types of meltdowns. As a former pre-school teacher, and parent of two high-needs boys, I have become adept at differentiating between the two. There is the “I am not getting what I want and this is my attempt to wear you down and get it” tantrum. This is the true tantrum. This is the one that is reinforced when you are worn down and give them what they want. The other is a genuine, overwhelmed meltdown. I would never shame a child for either of these, but I certainly respond differently to each of them. Right now, I am going to focus on the genuine meltdown, as it most closely aligns with the time in theory.

Kids are actual people. Try not to be too shocked. As such, they have different ways of coping with things, just as we do. All of us have these genuine meltdowns, sometimes even for similar reasons (tell me you wouldn’t cry if you have had a long, stressful day and you dropped your grilled cheese on the floor.) We all have different ways of dealing with it, and kids are no different.

My two boys could not handle overwhelming situations more differently. My youngest is the poster child for time in. Small things become big things very quickly, and he loses it. If you try sitting him on his own, he takes this as a personal rejection (that's if he will release the gorilla grip he has on your arm long enough to even walk away) and he will continue to escalate his meltdown indefinitely. I’m fairly certain that if I sat him in time out until he calmed down, he would be saying his wedding vows still screaming my name. And that would just be awkward for everyone.

The first thing I do when he starts getting upset is to offer him a hug. Most of the time, a few minutes of cuddling brings him back to earth and we can actually have a conversation about what happened and how to fix it. I won’t pretend like things are always sunshine and roses once he calms down, but he calms down.

The worst possible thing you can do when my oldest is having a meltdown is try to touch him, talk to him, or comfort him. He grows spikes when he is upset. Time in's are torture for my oldest child. “Go to your room and come out once your attitude has changed” was a game changer for our family. It has resulted in a beast stomping his way upstairs, and a calm, sweet little boy gently walking down sometimes less than a minute later.

We do not enforce a time frame, he has been known to spend seconds or hours up there. The only criteria is that he must be calmed down and cooperative when he comes out. He has an absolute need to be left alone, regain composure on his own terms, and re-join the productive conversation of his own free will.

Like everything parenting-related, people like to make it black and white. Don’t isolate your child during a meltdown, that’s shaming; instead engage them. This is a fabulous approach...for some children, and some adults as well. More important, I feel, is not worrying about sticking to a specific dogma, but paying close attention to your child’s specific needs.

In other words, don’t hug a porcupine.

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