Creative Child

How to Use Time-In as a Discipline Alternative to Time-Out

by Rebecca Eanes

You know the scene. You’re trying to get your screaming, kicking child to sit in the time-out chair, and he’s not cooperating. He gets up every 3 seconds, so you have to keep wrangling him into the chair. Time restarts because he got up again. Three minutes end up lasting 20. He’s crying, and you’re about to cry…or scream…or give up entirely and go for a glass of wine. Time-outs can be a huge power struggle, especially if you have a strong-willed kid. They’re hard on sensitive kids, too. Most of the time, they don’t even work to change behavior and you end up stuck in an endless loop of misbehavior, time-outs, and frustration. Nothing sucks the joy out of parenting quite like everyday power struggles.

The good news is that there is an alternative that many parents, myself included, find to be much more effective. To understand how to implement time-in, you first need to understand why this approach makes sense. Read The Brain Science that Changes Parenting for a more comprehensive post on the “why” behind this time-out alternative. To summarize for the purpose of this article, the brain, to greatly simplify, can be divided into two main parts which Dr. Tina Payne-Bryson and Dr. Daniel Siegel refer to as the “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain.” Upstairs is where higher reasoning, logical thinking, empathy, regulating emotions, morality, and more are housed. Downstairs is primitive and reactive.

“We want to engage the higher parts that can help override the lower, reactive parts. Which part of the brain do you think punishment appeals to? Which part does being ignored appeal to? What about threatening? These parental behaviors all activate the reactive reptilian brain. They (Bryson and Siegel) call this “poking the lizard.” But, by demonstrating empathy and respect and engaging in problem-solving, you don’t communicate a threat, and the reptilian brain can relax its reactivity. This is why I moved from time-out (which my son perceived as a threat) to time-in, because I wanted to appeal to his upper brain, not continue lighting up their lower brain. It’s why I now engage both my children in problem-solving when a problem arises rather than punishing them.

When we consistently help a child to calm down and work with them to teach good decision-making, we are actually strengthening the neural connections in their upstairs brain.”

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