That Time I Put Myself in a Timeout

Sometime last year, shortly after Bobby was born, Sally had the worst temper tantrum she has ever had. Sean was working late and I had the kids. Bobby was fussy and I was trying to cook supper and I don’t even remember what set Sally off. But she wasn’t the only one who got mad—I got mad too. Really angry, and not just at her. My evening was not going as planned. Sally was lying on the ground, screaming and kicking things. So I chose a course of action and took it. I turned off the stove, grabbed Bobby, and put myself in a timeout in the bathroom. I sat there and held him and listened to Sally scream in the hall and tried not to cry. But in retrospect, I think I made the right call. I didn’t do anything I would regret, and removing myself and Bobby from the situation gave Sally the time she needed to calm down. And I knew where Sally was the whole time—in the hall outside the door—so it wasn’t like she was in danger of hurting herself or destroying something.

When the noise in the hall stopped I came out, and Sally was laying on the floor quietly, almost asleep. She opened her eyes and spoke to me calmly, addressing the issue that had set her off. And so we talked about it, calmly, and found a solution to whatever the problem had been, a solution she had been too overwrought for us to reach earlier.

When Sally gets upset and starts into a tantrum, I speak to her calmly. “Honey, it’s okay, I know you’re upset. Take a deep breath and let’s talk about it, and we’ll try to work something out.” Sally knows I mean that. She knows I listen to her, and she knows I take her input into account when making decisions. And she, in turn, listens to my concerns as well. Last week when we had to leave the park I told her it was Bobby’s bedtime, and she suggested that we stay and that Bobby could sleep in the stroller. In other words, she was listening to my concerns just as I listen to hers, and trying to find a solution that everyone could be happy with. Of course, sometimes the answer is still “no,” but even when that happens Sally at least knows I listened, and knows from experience that the answer isn’t always “no.”

Anyway, when Sally starts getting upset and moving the direction of a tantrum it’s not uncommon for her to pause and say “I need to calm down. I know! I will rest.” And often she’ll go lay down on the sofa in the living room and close her eyes, trying to relax, and then come back a few minutes later ready to discuss whatever it was calmly and rationally. Sometimes it’ll be me who suggests that she rest, and calm down, and then we can talk about it, and she’s usually receptive. But sometimes it doesn’t work, and when she does throw a tantrum I let her—I just don’t let her hurt anyone in the process and I simply wait for it to end.

I still remember a time last fall when I drove Sally to the park, only for her to announce when we got there that it was the wrong park. I asked which park she’d wanted, but it was too late. She hadn’t had a nap that day and was tired, and was getting really worked up. Suddenly she said “I need to calm down! I need to sleep!” And she closed her eyes and rested her head, still strapped into her car seat, and took a nap. I opened a book and figured I could wait. Several minutes later she woke up and told me calmly that we were at the wrong park, and told me which park she’d wanted. And so I drove her there, because it wasn’t a big deal. If there’d been some reason we’d gone to that park in particular, I would have talked her through that, and explained, and addressed her concerns, and that would have been okay too.

In the end, I’m trying to teach Sally how to understand her own feelings and reactions as well as other people’s feelings and reactions, and how to handle and deal with those feelings and reactions and negotiate and navigate the world of others’ feelings and reactions. And I want her to understand that these are things I deal with, too.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I support this course of action. I use it myself when I recognize that I’m getting too upset or otherwise emotional.

    Mine is usually in the form of a ciggarette and a nice walk outside, though.

  • ako

    That sounds like a good way of coping. Parents need to maintain good emotional control, but no human is capable of constant perfect control, so realizing when you’re at your limit and stepping out of the situation is really good thinking. And it’s a good example to the kids. “Mommy’s upset, so she’s going to go calm down and come back when she’s feeling better” can be a good example of emotional self-regulation. (There are ways it can be misused to hurt a kid, but that doesn’t sound like what you did at all.)

    My brother’s teaching my niece to manage her temper in a similar way. I noticed that from an early age she’s been good at putting her feelings into words (“I wanted to win! I’m really angry right now”), and she picked up the habit of taking her favorite blanket to the couch where she can sit for a while and calm down. It’s kind of like Sally and the naps – my brother definitely suggests it sometimes, but she’s started spontaneously mentioning it when she’s upset and struggling to behave herself. It’s great how much you can teach a kid about good behavior with little or no punishment.

  • NeaDods

    You are an amazing mom. And what’s best is, you are giving Sally plenty of practice now with the tools she will need to function as an adult among adults, rather than expecting her to grasp a major rule change from your authority to her autonomy at some unspecified point in the future.

    • minuteye

      Agreed, emotional self-regulation is one of the most valuable skills an adult can have, and yet it takes most of us a huge part of adulthood to get the hang of it.

      • NeaDods

        I’ll argue that a fair number of adults still don’t have the hang of it.

  • Hat Stealer

    You must be doing it wrong. I see rubber piping mentioned nowhere in this post.

  • forgedimagination

    Honestly, this made me cry. Nearly every post you write about Sally makes me cry. It gives me so much hope that I can do it differently from my parents, that it’s possible to be a mother someday without resorting to all the NGJ nonsense. That used to be the only thing I knew, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

  • chi7

    We do a hug-it-out thing when tempers or other emotions are flaring. Works wonders.

  • LL

    I’ve never wanted children, but seriously, reading about you and your family sometimes makes me want to raise a little person as respectfully as you do.

  • Marta L.

    I love all your Sally posts, but this in particular touched my heart. Aside from the cuteness factor (that story of a self-imposed nap in the car seat was a true awwwww moment), it’s clear that Sally has an understanding that her emotions can be subjectively rather than objectively valid, and that might affect how she needs to respond. Imagine if adults in politics or just in their general RL could differentiate between, say, the real need to protect ourselves and the psychological fact that I am scared and want something to make me feel not-scared in the gun control debates. Or pick your situation. The fact is, Sally is head-and-shoulders above many adults these days, and I think most of the credit lies with Mommie Dearest. :-)

  • luckyducky

    At least half of the time outs my youngest gets are 50/50 for me/for him or better. I can’t say I am so magnanimous about it but I am usually clear that “mom does not have the patience for this at the moment, we need to take a break” and it beats losing my temper with him.

  • Saraquill

    I’m a bit surprised that neurotypicals do this. I thought it was just people on the autistic spectrum that needed calming down spaces.

    • luckyducky

      I don’t want to minimize the challenges/differences/etc. that individuals with ASD have to cope with but there is very little that individuals with ASD use to cope or adapt that won’t also benefit neurotypical kids.

      My (albeit limited) experience with kids with ASD is that they have difficulty with being overwhelmed by stimuli, be it auditory, tactile, visual, or olfactory alone or it combination (I suppose taste fits in there too but I am not often involved in feeding these kids). My biological neurotypical kids have their thresholds for these kinds of stimuli too — albeit much higher — and crossing them, particularly when they were younger, can easily provoke emotional responses.

      Regardless, it is easier for anyone to calm down in environments with less stimulation.

      • Saraquill

        I was thrown off largely as I was only exposed to time outs as “You were bad, this is your punishment.” Using it as a chance for the exiled party to calm down was mentioned in my hearing all of once, largely as an excuse for the punishment.

        Similarly, I learned about calming down time and spaces as “You are disabled, this is what you do.” (For anyone who may be vexed at me, I am one of those disabled parties. I’m not saying these things to look down on others.)

      • luckyducky

        Oh, it’s all in the implementation.

    • Rosa

      Ditto what Luckyducky said.

      One of the myths about “normality” that hurts just about everyone is that only flawed people have needs, that “normal”, “neurotypical”, or “sane” means not having needs. A lot of things designed to help one labeled special group end up being helpful to a wide spectrum of people.

    • NeaDods

      I think LuckyDucky’s right – the difference isn’t that neurotypicals don’t overstimulate, the difference is in tolerance levels.

    • Conuly

      Being on the spectrum, I also concur with Luckyducky. There are very, very few traits that really are restricted to autistics. Everything else is a difference in degree, and when we are talking about young difference that line is very, very slender.

      • Christine

        It’s one of the most difficult things for me – I can’t tell what behaviours of mine are because my brain is wired differently, and what are happening for “normal” reasons. And I know that I can’t separate out my Asperger’s from who I am, but if I want to change the behaviour, it helps if I know if I can use the standard advice, or if that would only make it worse.

      • Conuly

        I hear you. Boy, do I ever!

  • http://valuesfromscratch.blogspot.com/ Marian

    My daughter’s is “I need to be alone for a minute.” She does it everywhere, the house, the store, wherever. If she’s freaking out (or sometimes when she just wants to dawdle) she tells me she needs to be alone, stops and stands perfectly still, and I just cheerfully tell her to let me know when she feels better. After a minute or two I get a “ok, I feel better now!” and we move on with our day. And yeah, when I know its just that she doesn’t want to move as fast as I want to move, it can be a little annoying, but I still try to respect it, because she’s still trying to tell me what she needs in the best manner she has.

    The weird thing is, I didn’t teach her to do that (that I know of). I never purposefully modeled it for her, I never suggested that she be alone to calm down… I don’t know where she picked it up. She just started doing it one day. Now, it’s great, and I reinforce it by allowing her to have her alone time so that now it’s ingrained habit, but I’ve no idea where she got it.

  • Rosie

    Every time you post these things, I’m just blown away. You’re teaching your toddler things that I didn’t learn until I was over 30, things I didn’t know needed to be taught. Things I thought “normal” people just…picked up by osmosis or something. And my parents thought (still think) they were doing right by me, doing exactly the right kind of parenting to make the most functional adult possible. Because the Bible and Dr. Dobson told them so. And that makes me furiously angry with the entire evangelical subculture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

    If you find the time, I’d love to read your book on parenting someday, or even just a collection of stories like this. They’re very hope-inspiring.

  • Karleanne Matthews

    Disclaimer: I’m not a parent, so this is just from observing my friends and my very large family interacting with their children.

    I think one important component of making this strategy work is being realistic about your own needs as a human, which I know can be hard for those of us raised with the idea that parents (or should I really say mothers?) are supposed to be eternally joyful in childcare and housework. Often I see moms using one child’s needs as an excuse to not give another kid what he or she wants–the problem is that really, it’s something that the mom needs, and so when the kid tries to reason out an alternative, all the suggestions get shot down because the kid hasn’t been given the real problem to find a solution for. Sometimes I think it’s just way better to be able to say “Mommy didn’t sleep well last night, so she needs to stay home and rest on the couch instead of driving you to Joey’s this time.”

    Luckily for me, my mother was absolutely brilliant at this. I remember her frequently saying when I was a kid, “Mommy’s ears are really tired and need a time-out right now. Will you play quietly for a while to help?” I think these self-imposed time-outs freed her up to be *genuinely* joyful when interacting with us, rather than just pasting a smile over her frustration because it’s supposed to be her God-given calling.

    • Karleanne Matthews

      To clarify, I’m not trying to suggest Libby isn’t doing this; rather, I’m commenting that the incredible kind of compromise work Sally is doing is only possible because Libby IS giving the real reasons why things can/cannot happen at the time.

  • Ann Parker Crawford

    It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job!


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