Time-Outs are for Parents
The other day I yelled at my four-year-old. Screamed really.
It wasn’t a fair fight.
The details of how the scenario came about are insignificant compared with the repeated broader phenomenon. (That is to say, I blew up at him because of a slinky. The reasons why are significantly more interesting.)
When my adult platform of politeness, self-control, dignity, and maturity shuddered a touch, it gave way to anger — under which was fear of loss, probably under which was actual unrelated loss. I could see the same anger, fear, and sadness in my sons eyes even as the scene unfolded. Looking back on it later, I felt as though I had kicked a kitten.
Perhaps there are parents who do not identify with losing their cools around their kids. Perhaps there are some who hold it together 100% of the time (or who at least appear to hold it together). While I have met a few people who position themselves like this, I have my doubts about their perfect composure at all moments behind closed doors.
For those of us who are gifted with this position in life, we each move through the parenting years with different styles. I talked with a friend recently about how as a kid, she and her siblings knew they had taken it too far when her mother would become very, very, quiet. Silence was apparently her mom’s way of momentarily slipping off that parenting pedestal. Because of course, to our kids, we parents stand on platforms, implicit or explicit examples of all human beings are supposed to be. And even if stepping down doesn’t look like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, it happens.
Perhaps because yelling at my kids with a little too much intensity is a point of concern in my life, I find it hard to imagine that these parenting melt-downs are that unusual in the general population.
We all ‘lose it’ with our kids from time to time. Don’t we?
A few months ago, I was discussing this pattern in my life with my therapist. She made an observation that at the time was both novel and fascinating. “Time-outs are for parents”, she explained. They’re not generally a punishment or necessarily a consequence for bad behavior (although without a doubt they can be that). Time outs are not for calming the child down (although they can serve that purpose as well). They’re for giving the parent space to get back on his or her pedestal, processing the moment, and then reentering conversation with the child calmly.
Early on in our parenting experience, our now four-year-old gave my wife and I a particularly wild run for our money when he was about a year-and-a- half-old…and then again for about 8 months between 3 & 4. (I’m pretty sure he’s got a few more streaks in him yet!). Anyways, when he was still under two, we occasionally resorted to spanking in order to jar him into appreciating the seriousness of certain unacceptable behavior. As my wife and I reflected on this at the time, we both confessed our discomfort with that form of discipline — that we both felt as though we only spanked in moments when we were angry, that we had a hard time conceptualizing how it taught our boy the kinds of things we wanted him to value as an adult. We never hurt our son of course, and never intended to. Spanking isn’t abuse. But it was clear to both of us that the “spanking road” was one we wanted to quit traversing in our family. So we stopped. No more physical consequences/discipline. (And I write this with malice toward none who find it a useful tool in the parenting toolbox). All of this is to say that for the most part, my wife and I have since relied upon time-outs and loss of privileges as our primary strategies for shaping our kids’ behavior.
So when my therapist suggested that a “time-out”, while a practical parenting practice in principle (how’s that for alliteration?), is really FIRST a self-soothing tool for the adult, it kind of blew me away. I hadn’t ever conceptualized it that way. Aren’t they a form of punishment? I mean, for my hyper-social extroverted four-year-old, having to spend five minutes in his room alone is nearly akin to torture! Yet the more I thought about my therapists assertion, the more it made sense. Especially in light of my angry tirades.
My son might or might not himself need time-outs in order to grow into a wise, kind, and mature human being, but I need them in order to be a better dad. And these might just be the same thing!
So here’s how it’s looking more and more in my life: I get triggered by some behavior or situation among my family. My son does something cruel or ignorant, careless or unconscious — rarely but sometimes is it entirely benign. I feel my anger rising. (In the slinky scenario, my emotions had to do with my son’s repeated ignoring of my instruction to be more respectful of his toys). In general in these scenarios, everything is mostly fine at this point. I am miffed but holding it together.
Typically, when I end up yelling and screaming, it’s a precipitating event after this initial context that triggers it. This most recent time, my son stepped on and broke his brother’s new toy truck.
On the surface, nothing more than an accident or perhaps just careless act but certainly not grounds for a tongue thrashing.
But during the day preceding this, my son had already intentionally destroyed his own new toy and had been rough with several others. Surrounding each of these events, he and I had talked in detail about taking care of his things. Then, broke his brother’s truck at the very moment I was again talking to him about respecting his toys. My son’s apparent complete lack of whatever (consciousness? respect? self-awareness?) threw me for a loop. I erupted in angry yelling.
(Stay with me now. I know. He’s 4. This isn’t a justification for my reaction. It is an explanation — why we do the things we do is incredibly important if we hope to change our patterns!)
The moment he stepped on the truck was really the moment of truth. It was in that instant that the steady progression amps up — or stays under control. More and more in recent weeks, I’ve been holding it together during these precipitating triggers — gently coddling them in my hands; aware of what is happening inside me.
This is where the time out is gold, for me.
If, in those moments, I calmly send whichever son (or both) to his room — and I myself go to my room as well. If I take some time to breathe. To pray. And then repeat. (He’s only four right now so those moments usually only last about 4 minutes.) If I’m calm enough during that time-out, what I’ve noticed is that I begin to evaluate and explore what exactly triggered me in the situation. More often than not, for me it has to do with the fear of my son becoming an unhealthy, immature, and destructive adult — the frightening reality that I’m ultimately not in control of who he becomes as an adult — the vicarious sadness of anticipating any loss that may emerge later in life as a consequence of his poor choices. I take parenting very seriously (as I do of most things in life). I want to gift my boys with the best possible platform for being healthy adults who contribute beauty to the world.
And of course, my fears for his future are indeed a rabbit hole. But yet that set of emotions is very real. And as I’ve learned, part of the reason I respond with such fury in triggering moments has to do with my autonomic “fight-or-flight” response to such apparent menaces. My fear in those moments feels like a threat to my very existence or meaning in life. If I’m unconscious, my body takes me to places I never would've chosen in my right mind.
The time out, for me, is a way to short circuit that fight or flight process so I can continue to be the adult in the room; so I can continue to be a good example to my son for how to work through these very issues; so I can teach him to be the mature and wise man I hope he will one day become.
If, as is typically the case, these deeper reflections come later, after the time out. In the moment, I usually only have the energy and time to simply calm myself. A good trick I’ve found in these limited circumstances has to do with telling myself the truth.
There’s something about triggering events (however minor or seemingly unrelated they might be) that leads us to subconsciously and emotionally question everything about ourselves. If in an instant, I strongly believe that my son is going to end up in dire straights, addicted to substances, on the street, abusing others…I might in that instant blame myself, I might question my own worthiness as a human being and as a parent, I might consider myself as a failure. For anyone familiar with CBT, this is basic. Confronting falsehoods, even those embraced in a moment, is key to living how we really want. Jesus called it something else: “The truth will set you free.”
So for me, the most important thing in my time-outs, even if I don’t have time to reflect on all the causes, is to start reminding myself of what I know to be true. Sometimes this is out loud. Sometimes under my breath. But never the less, I start telling myself the truth: “I am a man made in God’s image. I am good enough. I make the world a better place. I am here for a reason. His grace is enough for me. I am not in control. I am doing my best. There is grace enough for this.” Etc.
Parenting is kind of built up in certain segments of our culture as this golden time of life. Life never gets better than when you’re wrangling two-year-olds all day long. And in a certain respect, that’s true. In another respect, that’s nonsense.
My boys are among the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. The moments I spend with them are holy. And for me (for many of us), those holy moments are often incredibly taxing.
Here’s the thing. Recognizing the value of; appreciating; and embracing the importance of this parenting season isn’t the same thing as enjoying it.
I think there’s a degree to which our culture has sold us a bill of goods on this thing. That unless you both value parenting AND THINK IT’S A TON OF FUN, you’re a jerk and a horrible person. Here’s the truth kids: many great parents out there find the task to be the most difficult thing they’ve ever attempted. They find it maddeningly difficult — and yet full of joy. It’s hard and good — like running a marathon. Which — I’m sure — some people do enjoy. But most of the ones I’ve talked to say it’s something they simply tolerate. A beautiful goal to reach for. A height to scale. A moment to savor.
But it’s still painful in the moment.
One of the things I’m most hopeful about when it comes to my parenting is how my consciousness of all of this…my reactions to their shenanigans, my relationship with the discipline of parenting, my processing of challenging situations…my hope is that in doing these things, I will teach my boys to do the same. I’d love for it to become second nature to them. I’d love for them to be able to know themselves well enough to take their own time-outs in order to calm down and get straight. I’d love for them to be able to reflect deeply on why they do what they do. To courageously face it down, confront lies, embrace the truth.
And so I’ll continue to take time outs with my boys. I hope you do too.
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