Six Alternatives to Time-Out

We’ve all been there – tired, stressed, juggling a million things in our arms and heads, and not in the mood for protests. But protests we get in the form of a tantrusm or a slammed door. In an instant, we get hijacked by our “reptilian brains” and we say, “You’re in time out!” or “Go to your room!”

Screaming and crying, our children sit alone and isolated from the rest of the family. Maybe we feel a sense of relief – we can finally get dinner made or go to the bathroom. Maybe we are still seething and glad we didn’t do something worse. We may feel a mixed bag of emotions. But do we feel connected to ourselves and our children? Most often, the answer to that is “no.'”

When our children go screaming to time-out, we lose a sense of connection because isolation, punishment, and fear don’t work. They don’t encourage our children to be compassionate and confident. They don’t connect us to our children. In the long run, they don’t curb defiant behavior. And they just don’t feel good.

Why do we do it then? Maybe we experienced punitive punishment growing up. Maybe we are tired and already at a “boiling point.” Maybe no one ever told us there are simple alternatives that not only connect us to our children but also can prevent these stressed-out times from happening. Here’s where mindfulness and mindful parenting can help.

Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a beautiful definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “mindfulness is knowing when you are breathing in and knowing when you are breathing out.”

Mindful parenting is about bringing that intentional, nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness into the relationship we have with our children. It’s about bringing acceptance and compassion into a stressful situation. It creates a pause, giving us an opportunity to wake up, see more clearly, and make a more informed choice about how we want to respond. On the days that you want to try something other than sending your child to time-out, here are some mindful parenting alternatives:

1. Get a hold of yourself first. The number one way to defuse a situation is to manage your own emotions first. When you are mindful of what’s going on inside of you, you are better able to respond to your child instead of react. The instant you realize that you are going into “stress mode” and the part of your brain that prepares you for “fight or flight” is starting to take over, put one hand on your belly and exhale to a count of six. Don’t worry about getting a deep inhale. Your exhales and inhales will synchronize. This sends a signal to your brain to stop sending out all those stress hormones and move out of “fight or flight.” Once you calm down, you have access to the part of your brain that is used for rational decision-making.

2. Offer a hug. This one often raises a few eyebrows, “But my child is acting up! Why would I hug them?” Offering a hug doesn’t reward your child’s behavior. It acknowledges that you and your child are not connected in that moment and it communicates that you want to reconnect. When your child is acting out, just ask, “Ahh, do you want a hug?”

3. Do something funny. Laughter is a release, gets us out of “fight or flight,” and reconnects us. It’s not about making fun of your child or using sarcasm. It’s about being silly, taking yourself less seriously, and de-stressing a tense situation. Try laying down on the floor and just start rolling around. Or sit down and start “pretend” meditating, chanting “Om”. Or even just start making animal noises. It’s hilarious and can get the two of you laughing…together.

4. Take a parent time-out. Instead of sending away your child, you walk away. Say, “I’m really upset right now and I need to cool down.” Go into the bathroom or your room. Besides the bonus of calming you down, taking your own time-out models self-regulation and appropriate self-care to your child.

5. Call a re-do. The second you become mindful that things are going south, say, “Wait a second. I see we aren’t connecting. Let’s start over.” This takes the blame off of any one person and focuses on the two of you reconnecting. Teaching your child to call for a re-do empowers them to be mindful of when they need to reconnect to you.

6. Give lots of time-in. Little doses of focused, undivided attention with loving eye contact and a caring tone of voice throughout the day fill your child’s need for your presence, embrace, and unconditional love. When you are feeding your toddler, pause for a moment, look her in the eyes, and say, “I love you.” When your young child gets home from school, stop what you are doing, look him in the eyes, and say, “Hi son. It’s good to see you.” No toy, activity, or privilege is worth more to a child than a parent’s loving regard.

These simple mindful techniques can reconnect you to your child, lighten up stressful situations, and curb defiant behavior. See how they can support the sweet, nourishing relationship you have with your child. Notice how they can wake you up, ground you, and connect you to your own heart and to your child.

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Lisa A. McCrohan, MA, LCSW-C, RYT is a psychotherapist, yoga and mindfulness teacher, and mom to two little ones. Her specialty is fusing Western psychology and neurobiology with Buddhist mindfulness techniques, a body-centered approach, and yoga movement. She works with adults in her private practice at Ananda Shala and with Spanish-speaking clients at Catholic Charities in Frederick, MD. Her passion is helping clients notice the gems in their everyday lives, discover what delights their hearts, and share it all with their families and communities.
For more information see or contact Lisa at 240-422-7380.

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