Why won’t time outs work for my child?

Most of our parents complain “We’ve tried everything to keep our child calm and to stop the tantrums and it’s just not working!” Further discussion reveals that “everything” is most often traditional behavioural strategies, such as punishment and time outs. Families are amazed when OT explains the concepts of emotional regulation and why time outs don’t work for every kid.

Time outs won't works for kids

Time outs don’t promote emotional regulation

The work of Dan Siegel, MD, continually informs our daily OT practice. His book, The Whole Brain Child, is the “must have” resource for parents and therapists in our clinic – it has a prominent place in our clinic waiting room. Dr. Siegel describes the brain as having an “upstairs” and “downstairs” and this understanding of the neuroanatomy and its function is the crucial first step of new learning for families.

To calm out of control children and to stop tantrums, most parents use techniques that are most effective on the “upstairs” part of our brain, the frontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for executive functioning skills, such as attention, focus and problem solving. And while this area doesn’t fully develop until the mid 20s (which is why teenagers still forget their coats on freezing cold days!), surely a 4 year old can understand the concept of “I can’t give you vanilla yogurt for breakfast, we don’t have any more.” But, the tantrum ensues.

The “downstairs” brain, the midbrain, is where we operate on a fight or flight reflex. No logic, no thinking, no focus or problem solving. All these executive functioning tasks are bypassed – shut down, in fact – during times of stress. This primal brain is what kept our ancestors alive and remains with us today. When a child is having a tantrum, and is emotionally dysregulated and stressed, they are operating from this part of their brain. Behavioural techniques for the “upstairs” brain have no effect at this point – it is offline – and the “downstairs” brain is the boss. This science shows us why we cannot expect a child in fight or flight to be able to sit in a time out.

Connection and emotional regulation

The solution is to abandon techniques that only reach the “upstairs” brain – like bargaining and time outs and connect with the “downstairs” brain through relationship. A calm adult midbrain, one that is in an emotionally regulated state, is the primary tool for this connection. It is connection that will calm the midbrain and eventually bring the child to a state of emotional regulation.

That means parents need to keep a calm midbrain themselves – often easier said then done! Breathe, sit on the floor with your child, decrease any talk or negotiation or bargaining, smile, look in their eyes, rock or snuggle if that feels good. This is connection. Soon, the child will calm, and one can return to a more familiar style of parenting. “Now, would you like apple sauce or cereal for breakfast?” Over time, you will see a decrease in tantrums as you assist your child in reaching emotional regulation.

Want personalized help with using these techniques for your child? Please join us at the clinic.