Time-Ins are in and Time-Outs are out. As a parent of a tween, this information would have been helpful to me about 10 years ago. But the support wasn’t there, or at least I didn’t know about it if it was.
When you look at family systems, they derive from attachment theory. Children learn which parts of them to grow and which to shrink in order to fit into their family system. This is how they are wired to survive. Time-Outs use a child’s most basic need for attachment against them. What is scarier to a child than the person they love most separating themselves, especially when they are already struggling?
This sends alarming messages to our children:
- I am good when I do good. When I am good, I get love and attention.
- I am bad when I do bad. When I am bad, I am left alone. My big emotions are not safe.
Many of the undesirable behaviors and big emotions parents discipline are actually healthy parts of child development. Children are born with their threat detection and feeling centers intact. The part of the brain responsible for regulation, impulse control, and problem-solving is immature and won’t fully develop until around age 25. This means that meltdowns, inconsistent emotions, and power struggles are all part of growing into a healthy adult. How we, as parents, meet these behaviors influences whether our children learn to suppress them or learn skills to manage them in age-appropriate ways.
Research and neuroimaging have shown that emotional pain lights up the same areas of the brain as physical pain, actually suppressing the gray matter of the brain. The gray matter is where we control movement, memories, and emotions. So, while Time-Outs may achieve compliance fueled by shame and fear-based tactics, they fail to meet the long-term goal of raising emotionally stable, resilient, and empathetic children, because they fail to teach the skills.
What does this mean for those of us with older kids who are just now learning about feeling and managing emotions for the first time? Do we throw in the towel, call it a day, we’ve screwed up our kids?
The answer is heck no! It is never too late to build a relationship with your child - to connect heart to heart and brain to brain. It starts today, right now.
Is My Child Too Old To Use A Calming Space?
The following are some tools for introducing and using Time-Ins with your older children:
1. Know your triggers
It doesn’t matter if your child is two or twelve, parenting starts with you. Notice what behaviors move you off of your center. What are you thinking and feeling?
Often, when we power struggle with our kids, it is because we are both trying to assert our control. One of the biggest lessons we can teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we do not control another human. So, next time you feel yourself coming out of your body with frustration, anger, or disappointment, pause and ask yourself, “What action can I take here?” This shifts the lens from overpowering to empowering. When your child is doing this challenging, hard-to-be-with behavior, what goal can you set for yourself?
2. Go at it together
Co-create a designated chill space in your house. Invite your children to decorate it with feelings posters, calming visuals and colors, and in a style unique to their taste. Throw in bean bags and blankets to help it feel more inviting. Ask your child what types of calming tools they would like to have in their Calming Corner and keep it stored in a bin for them to easily access. Ideas may be journals, conflict resolution worksheets, positive affirmations, fidget toys, books, art supplies, a weighted blanket, sensory bottles, or headphones with calming music.
3. Model it
Our children, of all ages, are watching how we respond to tricky situations. What do your children see you do when you are confronted with your own big emotions?
When we practice Time-Ins as adults, our children internalize healthy emotional regulation. Their mirror neurons jump into action and reflect back on what they see. Their nervous system absorbs our energy, and they can store that information for when their trigger buttons are growing.
Time-Ins are also a useful way to demonstrate healthy self-care practices. Taking time to pause, notice how you feel, and respond to your body’s signals is the ultimate self-care. When your children see you modeling this, they define these habits for themselves.
4. Create rituals
Children are constantly being shuffled from school, extra-curricular activities, playdates, and more, and are surrounded by technology and a product-driven society. This causes them to externally focus and become externally stimulated.
Use this space in the morning to mentally prepare for the day, as an after-school wind-down, or for a pre-bedtime feelings check-in. Time-In rituals turn your child’s gaze inward to notice how they are feeling and, in that pause, they can choose tools to help them regulate ( calm or alert) their nervous system.
5. Make family meetings a thing
Another way to build a Time-In ritual as a family is to host weekly family meetings. Pick a day and time that works for everyone to meet in the Time-In space.
- Start with some sort of connection activity such as an Encouragement Feast, a game, or a dance party.
- Then, take time for everyone to share feelings, thoughts, uplifting or challenging moments from the week, and more. Use a talking stick to help define the roles of sharing and active listening.
- You can also use this time to set family agreements around recurring stressful moments, to work out a conflict, or create a family motto, affirmations , and/or values. You may choose to pick one family value to practice and model each week.
- End with another connection activity to close out the meeting.
Our pre-teens and teens have brains that are still under construction. While it may not be cool for them to admit, they still look for our love, connection, respect, and empathy. As we model, they reflect.
New rituals take time and consistency. Co-create with your child. The more they choose to invest with you, the more successful it will be. Time-In rituals are not a one-time action, but small, daily relational moments where we both dance between teacher and student.