This post is more for parents struggling with the concepts of time outs and understanding consistency in positive parenting techniques.
On one of the parenting boards I’m a member of, someone was talking about how their pediatrician wants them to be more consistent in giving their child time alone. The child is getting violent and hurting people. I responded because – consistency is key and not being consistent is one of the reasons the child has gotten violent. Here is what they wrote:
My 4 yo son has some behavioral struggles going on and is diagnosed ADHD. Lately he has become increasingly more violent and I feel like I’ve tried everything, his Dr just told me yesterday I’m not consistent enough or doing enough to stop him from being violent (as in not punishing him enough). I hate time outs, but I’ll use them when something is really severe because I don’t know what to do. His Dr told me I need to time him out every time he does anything remotely violent, and literally lock him in his room. I hate that so much. He already thinks he is bad and everybody hates him, I don’t want to rule him with shame. What else can I do in response to violence? Are time outs really my only option?
Edit for clarity: I do know when this happens because of anger he is having a hard time. We have a lot of strategies we use for regulating. The violence I’m struggling with is impulse control related, he will smack someone in the face completely unprovoked with a smile on his face. And other things
First things. How she framed a time out as incorrect. She views it as punishment and – it should never be used as punishment. 2nd. The child is acting out because they are having trouble regulating emotions. Isolating a child doesn’t teach them how to regulate their emotions. On the other hand, you can’t let them hurt other people or themselves. So, what to do? And, how can she make sense of her doctor’s advice?
What parents need to know is consistency of response is key to help with behavioral regulation. Consistency is what trains up the behavior you want, in this case, learning to regulate emotions. The doctor is telling her correctly, that every time the child gets violent, she should interrupt and provide a consistent consequence that removes him from the situation. This will do 3 things.
1. It will interrupt the behavior and act as a delta. A signal that the outburst isn’t going to be reward. Note, this doesn’t mean – punishing him. It just means, no reward.
2. He’s having a hard time and acting out because – he needs help. The interruption gives space to reframe what is going on. This doesn’t mean – allowing violence. It means, responding to violence with compassion and being consistent.
3. It provides a space for the parent to actively and explicitly teach the child how to deal with big bad emotions ethically and effectively. But again, only if the parent uses the time as a learning opportunity. Just – shutting a child away from everyone is not a learning opportunity, it’s a punishment. And punishments tend to make the unwanted behavior worse.
Whenever my son got so angry he’s start to lash out, I had him take a break with me away from the other kids. That way, he could not hurt other kids. I would hug him if he’d allow and wait for him to calm down. I would often encourage him to use his words, but they are hard to come by for little kids. Speaking and emotion take up a lot of brain activity. Most children can’t do both. They can either speak, or be emotion. Encouraging them to speak forces them to calm down, but it’s ok if they are too emotional in the moment.
I would validate his feelings. It’s ok to feel whatever he was feeling. No matter how mad or how silly I thought it was. They were his feelings and they are valid by virtue of him experiencing them. Once he was capable of speaking and listening and expressing anger, I would also make it clear – it’s ok to be mad, but not ok to hurt other people. I would explain the reason I removed him was to give him time to regain control of himself before re-engaging with the other kids.
Everyone needs to do this from time to time. A time out is not a punishment, it’s something we do together so that we do have space to regulate our emotions. I would have him punch pillows and other things and encourage him to – get his anger out in a way that didn’t hurt himself, others, or any object in his room he cared about. We’d get it out – then rejoin the group.
I also modelled this. Whenever i felt myself getting upset, I would say – I need a break and I would isolate myself until I calmed down. Time outs are great to help kids learn to – self care. But that is what it is – self care. Not a punishment. He started doing this for himself within a year or so of practice. If he found himself getting mad at a friend, he would walk away and go collect himself. What a great gift I gave him! But – I had to teach it to him. He would have never figured it out on his own. Most kids need to be taught this skill explicitly.
The key to teaching this is consistency. If every time he lashes out – he is removed, not punished, but removed and encouraged to get his emotions sorted out – safely. He will learn to do that for himself. If the point is to punish him – it will never work and it will make things worse.
So – why does consistency matter? Because variable reinforcement of behavior – sometimes it works for him and sometimes it doesn’t – will make the behavior worse. Consistent, he learns that every time he does whatever it is – there is a consequence. That consequence is not a punishment, but rather a re-direction and active support and assistance on how to regulate emotions when they overwhelm.
Relating this to Bullying
If you’ve gone through the free training materials on the site or gotten the book, you know that I talk about approaching bullying using compassion and consistent non-reinforcement. This is the same skill you use to help kids learn how to cope with big emotions. Compassionate redirection. It works. It is science based. Learn it and teach it. My son is not bullyable. Not just because I’ve taught him how to get bullies to stop, but also, because he knows to walk away if he gets upset.