That was the word I used to describe my three-year-old to my best friend.
“He looks at me and does the exact thing I just told him not to do! I swear he’s trying to see just how far he can push me!”
These are common assumptions of toddler behavior borne from a lifetime of conditioning about what children’s behaviors mean. We are warned time and again that kids will try to push our buttons, test our boundaries, take over our homes, overthrow our authority, and basically toss us to the wolves if we allow it. So, we are told, we’d better get control and quick! We have to bring down that iron fist and show them exactly who is boss or else we will have a little tyrant on our hands.
It’s sad to think that I believed such nonsense of that little boy who had been in the world all of 36 months.
But I did believe it. And I put a little green chair in the corner specifically to punish his defiance.
Day in and day out, I sent him to Time-Out in that little green chair while tears slid down his cheeks and his trust in me broke a little bit more. Just when it seemed it might have actually worked to put out one fire, three more fires started up. It was an endless struggle for power, and it was getting us nowhere fast. One day, he was sitting in that awful chair, lip quivering, tears streaming down his face, and it’s like a switch flipped.
I no longer saw defiance. I saw pain.
That day, I tossed the green chair and decided that our story was not going to be one of tears, Time-Outs, and power struggles. I was done fighting. I began doing a lot of reading and researching. Here’s what I learned.
They Might Work Sometimes, But WHY?
Psychology professor Arthur Staats, made Time-Out a household name in the 60’s. He didn’t agree with spanking, and so he felt that isolation would be a better punishment. He claimed that putting his 2-year-old in her crib and keeping her there until she stopped crying “weakened the behavior so that it occurred less frequently in the future.”
Time-Outs have since become a very popular discipline technique as they are often recommended by pediatricians and other experts in lieu of physical punishment. The question we must always ask when it comes to parenting is why does it work?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld explains that, during the time when Time-Outs became popular, we didn’t understand what children really needed. We have since come to understand that the most wounding experience of all is facing separation because our children come to us hardwired for attachment and belonging. He says that if we had known and understood that, we would never have used Time-Outs, because it calls forth very strong emotions in children, and they become alarmed.
This alarm moves them to caution, and this is why it lessens the behavior, but it causes lots of anxiety in children. When parents use Time-Outs as a punishment, the recurring fear of separation and social isolation breaks down our attachment with them, and when connection is lost, influence is lost. Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls this “counterwill.” Neufeld Institute faculty member and author Deborah MacNamara explains that counterwill is the instinct to resist, counter, and oppose someone who they feel is controlling or coercing them. Children are designed to be directed by people they are attached to - which makes them prone to resist people who they are not connected to.”
Defiance or Development?
Frequently, what we consider defiance is simply normal development. My three-year-old’s prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain where logic, reasoning, and emotional management reside) was very underdeveloped, meaning he didn’t have the cognitive ability to create maniacal schemes to drive me over the edge or to plot his rise to power. He was simply reacting to his emotions and desires. For example, even though I had told him not to throw the ball in the house, his desire to throw is what he acted on, not because he didn’t want to follow rules but because his brain hadn’t yet developed sufficiently for good impulse control, so he acted on his impulse.
For months I punished him for being a child. I punished him for having an underdeveloped brain.
That was so not fair.
But as I said, we aren’t taught brain science and childhood development when we become a parent. We kind of have to learn as we go. Without that knowledge, our go-to response to that perceived defiance is punishment. We go heavy on trying to control them, and because force creates resistance. Then, we lock horns, and the cycle of power struggles begins.
From Time-Out To Time-In
When I ditched that green chair, I replaced it with a Calming Corner. The purpose of the Calming Corner is to help a child calm down and regulate their emotions. For young children, this is done through co-regulation. Before children can self-regulate, they learn through the process of co-regulation.
Co-regulation is best described as an interactive process of regulatory support that can occur within the context of caring relationships. This begins in infancy when we attune to our babies, soothe them when they cry, and attend to their needs throughout the day. When babies have a caregiver who will co-regulate with them during moments of stress, they begin to internalize strategies for self-regulation in their minds. All it takes is for us to be present and attuned to our children during their time of need.
Co-regulation continues all the way up to and through adulthood as it is a natural part of a healthy and connected relationship, and we do this by empathizing, holding space for, and comforting our children as well as talking with them about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is why a Time-In is such a valuable positive discipline tool.
During a Time-In, as we stay present and connected to our children to help them calm their brains and bodies, this decreases defiance in two ways:
- Because we are not leaving them alone in their distress, isolating them, threatening to withdraw, or being controlling, the counterwill instinct is not called forth. In fact, we are actually strengthening attachment and connection during a Time-In. This makes it less likely that we will experience counterwill even when we do have moments where we fall into being demanding or coercive.
- While we cannot force brain development, we can facilitate it. By teaching our children about emotions with a Feelings Faces Poster or SnuggleBuddies, we are helping to wire their brains in a positive way. Repeated experiences shape the brain, so when we repeatedly help them recognize, name, and process their emotions, this is what the brain forms a pathway to do. Imagine how repeated isolation wires the brain and how repeated alarm forms triggers.
If you’re ready to create your own calming corner, the Time-In ToolKit has everything you need to teach social and emotional skills at home. It includes evidence-based games and activities to calm your child’s brain and teach using play and positive discipline.
Worried It’s A Reward?
I’ve gotten this question a lot - “But isn’t being nice and spending time with them after they’ve “been naughty” a reward? Won’t this reinforce naughtiness?”
In a word, no. This ideology assumes that love and attention are carrots to be dangled in front of children to get them to do our bidding. This is deeply damaging to children and to relationships. Love is not a reward; it’s a lifeline. Time-Ins give us the opportunity to teach valuable skills while keeping our child’s heart in safekeeping. Your child will learn so much more through this co-regulation, as they learn about their emotions and the tools to regulate them, than they could possibly learn sitting in a Time-Out chair alone.
When we understand what defiance is, we understand that it isn’t something that requires punishment. We cannot punish a brain into developing faster. We can only provide the support needed to develop optimally. Through a Time-In, our children get to practice emotion regulation skills in the warm presence of those they love most. If we can raise a generation of children who get to have these experiences, I can only imagine the beautiful world they would create.