How to Improve your Child’s Behavior Using a “Time-In”

“I’m angry, I need to go take a break”


Words I never thought I’d hear my 4-year-old say in the heat of frustration, as he walks himself over to the break area to calm down.


Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t how he handles every frustration (actually not even close), but the fact that this happened means that he is ON HIS WAY to learning how to manage his emotions without aggression or outbursts.


Isn’t that what every parent wants? For our kids to know how to calm themselves down when they get upset? For them to be able to stop, breathe, and think before acting on their emotions? Of course it is! But how do we help our kids to get there?

Behavior is communication.

Our children let us know when they are struggling when they act out. As a parent, you have two possible ways of dealing with your child’s outbursts. You can:



A)    Deny their feelings, shame them, or send them away to deal with their big feelings alone in a “time-out.” Or…

B)    You can accept their feelings, help them identify the difference between their feelings and their actions, and give them tools to learn self-regulation. AKA, time-in.

Why not time-out?

Time-out is a surface level punishment.

The purpose of time-out is to extinguish negative behaviors, and for the child to “pay the price” for their actions. The problem with making a child “pay the price” for their behaviors is that it assumes that the child knows what they are doing and has full control over their actions. If we, as adults, don’t even have the emotional regulation to stop ourselves from yelling at our children, then how can we expect our young children to be able to manage their feelings?

Time-outs never address the deeper issues or the emotions behind them.

Underneath every negative behavior is a big feeling that your child doesn’t know how to deal with. Time-out simply represses your child’s feelings and teaches them that they are not accepted. Time-out teaches young children that negative feelings are meant to be pushed aside and that they will only be acknowledged when they are ready to “behave.”


Time-out is a form of love-withdrawal.

Time-out is actually an abbreviation for “time out from positive reinforcement” which was a term used by behaviorist B.F Skinner. He first described it a means of controlling animal behavior. Time-out is threatening a child on an emotional level, because they feel a threat of abandonment. For a young child, time-out is emotionally devastating.

What is a break or a time-in?

A break or a time-in is a gentler alternative to “time-out.” It is the way that you can help your child build the skills he needs for self-regulation.


At the heart of the positive parenting philosophy is the idea that our kids WANT to behave, always. But due to an immature brain and a lack of regulation strategies, they struggle.


If you believe that your child wants to behave, then punishments and time-outs make absolutely no sense. You are basically punishing your child for something they are not yet capable of doing. Think of it like punishing a 6 month old for not being able to walk.

Remember, ALL behavior is communication

A time-in is a process in which your child learns (with your help) to separate themselves from a challenging situation, in order to calm down and gain perspective before returning and solving the problem. With the parent’s support, the child learns the skills they need for emotional regulation.


What does this look like?

First things first, set up the time-in or “break” area

This should be a comfortable place in your home for your child to work out his or her feelings and take a break when needed. Think “cozy corner” and provide pillows, blankets, books, or sensory toys in your child’s break area. Anything that might help your child feel calm is appropriate in a time-in area. Another great addition is a poster with feelings so that your child can learn to name their emotions when they come up.

 Spend time in the break area often, especially when nothing is wrong

This is an important step in teaching your child that the break area is not a punishment. The purpose of the time-in is never for your child to “learn their lesson,” it’s for them to learn to calm themselves down and re-group. Read books, cuddle, and talk in the break area so that it becomes a happy and non-threatening space for your child.

Implementing the time-in

Whenever your child is demonstrating that they are struggling in a given situation (for example, hitting his sister for messing up his train tracks), physically stop him and say “We are going to take a break.”


Calmly and gently walk or carry your child to the break area and stay with him. Be a comforting presence as he calms down. Be willing to stay the course of the tantrum with him. Know that when your child is struggling, the release of emotions is inevitable.

Name and validate your child’s feelings

“It’s so frustrating that your sister messed up your train track. You were working really hard on that for a long time.”


So much of the time, your child just wants to be understood. He will have so much peace knowing that you understand and empathize with him.


Once he is calm he will be able to hear you and you can begin to problem solve with him.


“It’s so frustrating that your sister messed up your train track. The problem is that babies don’t understand how to play with trains. Babies just love to grab whatever they can reach. What can we do to keep your trains safe next time?”

 Next, help your child make amends

Let your child know that they need to go and check on the person they have hurt (either emotionally or physically). Have your child walk over to the other person and ask if they are okay. Instruct your child to ask the person if there is anything they can do to help them or make it better.

 Model using the break area when you are upset

When you feel your emotions starting to get the best of you, take the opportunity to model for your child how to use the break area by using it yourself. Say out loud, “I’m going to take a break to calm down before I figure out how to solve this problem.” So incredibly difficult in the heat of frustration, but so important for your child to see.

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