The Difference Between
"Time-Out" and "Taking Space"
As a therapist who works with parents struggling to manage their child's behaviors more effectively, I often hear the complaint that goes something like this:
"We put Timmy in a time-out but it doesn't seem to be working at all."
This always comes with a tone of desperation and frustration from the parent(s) because what they are really asking me is "What is wrong with my child that the one 'go-to' discipline strategy doesn't work for us when it seems to work for every other child on the planet?"
First of all, to be clear, I am not a huge fan of Time-Out as a go-to strategy. I prefer to use it as a last resort tool. It is something I have found is often over-used, administered incorrectly, and doesn't do much to help the child learn to calm down and manage his or her emotions. I cannot tell you how many children have told me they would sit in Time-Out and fester - utilizing that time not to calm down but to think about how they were going to get back at the person(s) they perceived put them there, or just continued to disrupt because they knew the time-out only lasted so long. In my previous life as an in-home therapist, I once watched an eight-year-old boy be placed in a Time-Out by very well-intentioned parents. After throwing several household items in the direction of his parents, kicking the wall, screaming, tantruming and generally carrying on, the parents decided that he had not calmed down in the allotted amount of time (they were following the rule of "one minute per year old") and added another eight minutes to his time-out to give him that extra time to calm down (I know this because they announced this to their son). This child then proceeded to strip naked and defecate on the floor. He picked up his poop and began throwing that at the wall, in his parents' direction, and to smear it all over his body. This time-out had failed in spectacular fashion, as it forced his parents to rejoin him in trying to keep him from escalating any further. This child was doing his very best to let his parents know that this method of discipline was not only NOT working for him, but was actually creating more anger and anxiety for him. The time-out was not teaching him anything positive to say the least.
So when I hear a parent's exasperation as he or she explains how Time-Outs are not working for their child, I begin by asking several questions. I do not do this to make the parents feel even less competent than they already feel, but I want to make sure I get a clear understanding of how they are implementing time-outs, when they are implementing time-outs, if this strategy had ever worked in the past, what they think they are teaching their child with time-outs, what they want to achieve by using time-outs, and most importantly I am looking to gauge how motivated the parents are to trying other strategies.
Most, if not all, of the parents I have had the true pleasure of working with are doing their best to provide their child with the tools he or she will need to have a successful, happy life. But parents are also human and fallible. How many times have we heard parents, friends, neighbors (...ourselves) say "I've had it UP TO HERE with this!!" We get frustrated too. We get angry too. We get anxious and escalated too. But when was the last time you heard another adult say "I'm going to put myself in a Time-Out." I'd say...well...never. What we do say is something more along the lines of "I need to put some space between me and this situation to regroup." We don't do this to punish the other person necessarily - we do this because at some point in the situation we realize the issue is not being resolved, emotions are too high, we (or the other person) are not thinking rationally anymore, and the best thing for our own sanity is to remove ourselves from the situation and let things calm down. We - in essence - Take Space. And we can teach our children to do this as well. We can model this behavior for them, and we can teach them how to do this in a non-punitive, teaching-moment way.
Taking Space is much less rigid than the classic Time-Out. There is no time limit attached, no "naughty corner/chair", and taking space does not always need to mean physical separation. It is something that we as parents can to do with our child BEFORE he or she escalates to unsafe behaviors (i.e. hitting, kicking, head-banging, etc.). The essence of Taking Space is to allow the child to maintain some control over how long and where he or she will separate from the situation. Specifically, when a child has no time limit on their separation and more control over where they go to calm down, it puts the onus on him or her to do the work of calming down in order to rejoin the family/group/activity.
It is something we as the parent can ask our child to do, or do ourselves. For example, if Timmy is starting to argue and get louder with his sibling who is beating him at a video game, we might ask him to take some space from the situation, use a redirection ("why don't you come help me feed the dog"), and come back to the game later. Or if Timmy doesn't like an answer or a directive we have given him and starts to argue or talk back to us, we can Take Space from him - for example "I'm sorry you don't like my answer Timmy but I'm not going to argue. I am going to take space and go get dinner ready." As with every other parenting strategy, follow through is key. If Timmy doesn't comply and leave the video game, we may have to then assign a place for him to go (i.e. his room), or perhaps give him a choice (i.e. take a moment away from the game to calm down, or lose his gaming privileges for the rest of the day). Both options still allow Timmy some level of control over himself. If Timmy follows you into the kitchen to continue to argue about a decision you have made, you might need to ask him to respect your space and leave the kitchen, or not respond to him until he changes the subject.
For children with attachment or anxiety issues, the physical separation that is often accompanied by a Time-Out can be a trigger for them and work to only quicken their spiral out of control. I once worked with an adoptive mother who was struggling to parent her tween-aged adopted daughter. In a moment of frustration one night, she called to ask if I could talk to her daughter to "get her to just shut up!" Clearly both mother and daughter were very frustrated and upset with each other by the time I got the phone call, but I knew that if I supported this mother in banishing her daughter to her bedroom (mom's go-to punishment), things would only get worse. Instead, I asked her if she thought she could have her daughter take space in her bedroom, but that she would sit in the room with her daughter until she calmed down. This mother was to not engage her daughter in any conversation but to just sit calmly with her until her daughter calmed down. The mother thought I was crazy for suggesting this and was sure it wouldn't work but was willing to try. I told her to call me back if things continued to escalate. I did not hear from her for the rest of the night. When I followed up with her the next morning, she said she had done as I had instructed, but that her daughter didn't want her in her room so she sat on the floor in the hallway with the bedroom door kept open until her daughter calmed down. She began using this strategy instead of sending her daughter alone to her room for endless time-outs, and reported that over a relatively short period of time, her daugther's outbursts became less intense and shorter in duration and frequency. The mother also noted an improvement in their overall relationship.
Taking Space is not a cure-all, and may not work in every situation. But as a first line of defense 'go-to' strategy, it works quite well. Most importantly, when combined with other strategies that teach kids to regulate their emotions, it is a parenting tool that can be very effect and help to create more harmony in your home.