Does a time in reward bad behaviour?
In traditional parenting circles, time outs are often recommended as a gentle discipline strategy. An alternative to physical punishment or yelling. But if you’ve been following me for any length of time, you would know that I strongly advocate for time ins over time outs. And this is an idea that many parents struggle with. They often ask me, “Isn’t a time in just rewarding my child’s bad behaviour?”
And I understand. I truly do.
You have a child who has just been aggressive, or disruptive. Maybe they’ve broken something, done something you’ve asked them not to, yelled at you, called you a name, or hurt a sibling. And I’m asking you to bring them close to you. Sit with them. Give them a hug. Offer compassion and empathy. See things from their point of view. To offer them love and kindness at a time when they seem the least deserving of it.
It’s hard to do. And it requires a big shift in the way we view our children and their behaviour.
What is behaviour, really?
The idea that we may be rewarding “bad behaviour” with a time in is based on a fundamental misconception about behaviour. It assumes that all behaviour is intentional. That when a child doesn’t do what we ask of them, they are being deliberately defiant or disobedient and manipulating a situation somehow to get what they want. And traditional wisdom would have us apply a consequence for this behaviour, so that our child knows it’s unacceptable.
But brain science simply does not support this view. In fact, challenging behaviours like aggression, defiance, lying, yelling, and tantrums, all have one thing in common. They are fear based reactions that occur when your child is dysregulated.
All behaviour is an attempt at regulation
The autonomic nervous system is actually the driver of all behaviour. What you see your child doing, and how they are interacting with their external environment, reflects what is happening within them. It is an indication of their level of arousal and the amount of stress their nervous system is experiencing.
When your child’s nervous system is well regulated and your child is feeling safe and secure, their behaviour reflects this. They have the resources available to them to follow instructions and do what is asked of them. They can consider their options and make good decisions. They can plan ahead. They are able to control their impulses and desires. They can think before they act. In these moments of perceived safety, the prefrontal cortex or the “thinking brain” is in control. These behaviours are called top down behaviours, because they are driven by the top part of our brain.
But when your child’s nervous system is dysregulated, and they do not feel safe, their behaviour also reflects this. They act irrationally. They make poor decisions. They cannot control their impulses. They have very little control over their behaviour at all. They cannot plan ahead and weigh up their options, because their focus is on safety in the moment. There is no time for thinking in this state. It’s all action. In these moments of perceived danger, the limbic system or the “emotional brain” is in control and the thinking brain is inaccessible. These are bottom up behaviours – driven by the lower, more primitive area of our brain. They are instinctual and unintentional.
Connection = Safety
So if challenging behaviour occurs when children feel unsafe, then the solution to challenging behaviour is to help them feel safe. Physically and emotionally safe. And relationally safe.
Now it goes without saying that if your child thinks they will be physically harmed, they will not feel safe. But children also feel unsafe when their emotional needs are not being met. When they do not feel free to express emotions. When they are shamed for expressing how they feel. When they have to hide parts of themselves from you. When they do not feel understood or truly seen for who they are. When they feel emotionally disconnected from you.
For humans, connection is safety. It’s quite literally what keeps us alive from birth. Without a connection to our caregivers, human infants would not survive. Our nervous systems are designed to feel safe and secure in connection with another. In moments of perceived danger, we reach out to others in order to feel safe and secure. If we do not receive connection in these moments, the brain perceives even more danger, and it moves into protection mode. The fight, flight or freeze response. And this is when we see challenging behaviour.
Time in creates safety through connection
Time in is an opportunity to meet our child’s need for safety. We co-regulate with our child during a time in, creating safety through connection. Lending them some of our calm. This connection provides children with the support they need to regulate their nervous system. It helps them move from protection mode to connection mode. From bottom up to top down behaviours. From unintentional instinctive reactions, to intentional, purposeful behaviour.
And once your child’s brain has moved from protection mode back to connection mode, there is no longer any need for them to engage in those challenging behaviours. Because the behaviours were merely a symptom. The physical manifestation of a nervous system primed to respond to danger.
When we are able to shift our lens and view behaviour as the symptom that it is, we are better able to offer our children compassion and empathy. Because then we are able to separate our child from their behaviour, and understand the need that drives it instead. We are able to address their behaviour at the roots.
But what do we do about the behaviour?
Leading with empathy and focusing on connection does not mean that you do not set limits or enforce boundaries. But it does allow you to set limits and address behaviour in a way that protects your connection with your child. First you help your child calm their body and mind, then you address behaviour.
We cannot address behaviour with children when they are feeling unsafe. Any attempt at correcting behaviour while they are in protection mode will be perceived as another threat. It will either escalate the situation by further triggering the fight or flight response, or it will trigger a freeze response in your child, where they completely shut down and switch off. This is why, if we want to teach children to behave differently, we need to focus on connection first. We need to help them calm their bodies. We need to help them feel safe so that they can be open to learning and receptive to our guidance. We need to help them regulate their nervous system.
Co-regulation is the answer
As an adult, you might calm yourself by retreating to your bedroom to take a few deep breaths. Or going for a walk around the block. Or calling a friend for support. These activities are not a reward for you yelling at your kids, right? They are opportunities for you to regulate. To calm your body and calm your mind so you can respond differently.
The only difference between you and your child, of course, is that your child still needs YOU to regulate. They cannot do it alone yet. They need co-regulation. This means they need you to teach them. To be with them, to see them, and to understand them. Your presence, understanding and comfort is what helps your child feel safe and secure. And only when they feel safe can they switch off the stress response and respond differently.
So you see, time in is not a reward for bad behaviour. Time in is about empathy. And empathy is never a reward for bad behaviour. It is the antidote.
Want to set up a calm down space and begin to implement time ins in your family? I’ve got you covered! The Mindful Little Calm Down Kit includes all the printables you need to set up a calming space in your home, as well as a comprehensive manual that will guide you through how to set up and use your new resources . So you can move away from punitive parenting and you and your child can learn to manage big feelings – together!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.