Failed time-outs can be a huge source of stress for parents and is typically a recipe for even more.
Failed time-outs can be a huge source of frustration for parents and teachers, making them question their skills and abilities, and leading to the belief that they need to escalate severity to get consequences to work. This can easily result in stronger and stronger reprimands, lectures, and even yelling, along with more and more drastic and punitive consequences. This is typically a recipe for disaster.
There is a much better way. Really understanding why time-outs don’t work is the place to begin.
There are two main reasons why time-outs can be enormously ineffective and why they can make parents wonder what, if anything, will get their child to start doing the right thing and follow the rules. Knowing this leads the way to a fantastic way to go forward to the impact you have always wanted.
Why Time-Outs Don’t Work
1. Time-outs fail primarily because they are issued along with the “reward” of energy, connection, and relationship. No one would purposely give a child a hundred dollars for breaking a rule, but we inadvertently do it all the time by way of giving children the “gift of us” as we are doling out the consequence. We dispense passionate explanation, cajoling mediation, heated lecturing, and other verbal interventions as we give the consequence. We are giving our energy and relationship. This is what they really want.
2. Time-outs also fail because if there has yet to be a concerted effort to establish a new and significant level of “ juicy time-in,” a time-out has no chance of having an impact. A time-out, in any form, is based on a child’s sense that for a period of time, he or she is out of the loop, missing out on what life has to offer, unable to experience life’s options and interest. If the child perceives there is nothing worth missing out on, then what is the motivation for wanting to stay in the game, so to speak?
The Video Game Formula for Successful Time-Outs
Think of a kid playing a video game. A video game gives time-outs: the screen flashes red for a moment, a buzzer sounds, the next level is momentarily unreachable. A video game can get away with amazingly short time-outs that are hugely inspiring to the child, to not only get back in the game, but in an ever-more determined way, to not break the rules and to go further into success.
The only reason that this video game formula of time-outs works is because the game’s conveyance of appreciation and success in various forms of “energized responses” is so strong. Bells and whistles announce the ushering of more points. The screen flashes with the child’s success. With all of this “energized success,” being out of the game for even a few seconds feels like an eternity. The child is motivated to get back in the game, follow the rules, and achieve success. It is a proven formula.
In real life, like in the video game, it is highly desirable for time-outs to be very short. Long time-outs fail because they can often be endurance test of wills for both adult and child. In contrast, short time-outs ensure that both the adult and child can move on to new successes sooner rather than later.
All Consequences Are a Time-Out
Almost everything we can think of as a consequence is really a time-out.
Think of any privilege we withdraw: screen time, or phone time, or friend time, or a host of other things we know our children value. The child feels it as a loss of options and as being out of the loop, whether it’s for 10 minutes or 10 days. The very same is true for consequences that add on chores or assignments or tasks. The child feels as if he or she is out of the loop for however long the tasks take.
As a culture, we are married to time-outs, and so many parents of children who are challenging come to feel that time-outs can be almost unworthy of the effort. My point is that if we are truly invested in time-outs, as I believe we are, then we might as well have a form of time-out that is inherently powerful and that propels us in the direction we really seek.
In the Nurtured Heart Approach, we call these consequences a “reset.” Success comes with a catch, however. It is imperative that the time-in is strong and established enough to be consistent and robustly appreciative, then even a very short “reset” can be wonderfully powerful and inspiring, even to the most challenging children.
The key is two-fold: 1. Short reset 2. Rich time-in.
What Constitutes Rich Time-In?
First of all, we must identify “juicy time-in” as any time when our children are in touch with their greatness – when their actions are connected with their own success. For example, when they are practicing the piano beautifully and they feel it, but also the just-plain-ordinary moments, or even more so, the challenging moments when they aren’t experiencing their success, e.g. they are practicing the piano and are outwardly frustrated as they struggle to read the notes. These moments are where we can help articulate a growing sense of success. We, as the adults, get to contribute the reserved energy that is intertwined with our love and out desire to be good guides. We recognize what is going right, rather then lecturing on what is wrong.
For example: “Liz, I want you to know how much I appreciated how you are handling your frustration with this difficult piece of music. You could have stormed off, but you seem to keep choosing to keep pushing through and working in such a determined way. I want to honor you for your great determination.”
I believe we seek to see our children use their intensity and life-force in great ways. Helping them challenge strong emotions into occasions for success awakens them to who they really are – kids with great life-force and great ability to channel their life-force into success. Through repeated exposure to their greatness, they begin to build inner wealth. This then becomes a self-regulating guide, which navigates them into a pattern of self-generated successes.
Resets and Inner Wealth
There are moments where behavior calls for a reset. If your child is swearing and kicking, a moment of pause is certainly required. Resets are not the weapon of a punitive model. They are an ideal opportunity to create inner wealth. In the moments that follow the bad attitude or the name-calling or the arguing that netted the need for a reset, we can then tell the truth of the next NOW.
Now the rule is no longer being broken. We know how NOT great it is when those rules are being broken, so isn’t it now so much easier to express the gratitude that’s in our heart when the arguing, bad attitude, and name-calling ARE NOT HAPPENING? All it takes is putting that appreciation into words.
“Cathy, I know you are still really mad about not being able to see your friends because of all your schoolwork, and I so appreciate that you are using your power and wisdom to handle your strong feelings so well. You are not arguing, name-calling, or saying bad words, and that shows me great respect and consideration. You are being wonderfully thoughtful too, and those are all qualities of your greatness I see in you.”
I know it will feel cumbersome and wordy at first, but watch the impact. The post-reset moments are chock full of opportunities to break through to new territory. We are the ones who introduce our kids to whom they really are as great people, and it comes through nurturing their hearts with real-live experiences of their success in each moment – via our words of gratitude.