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How to take a time-out with your child

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It’s stressful when your child is having a tantrum or outburst, and your reaction can ramp up their behavior. One way to lower the tension is to ask for a sports-style time-out so you and your child can take a quick break from the action. 

Watch or listen to this eight-minute episode of “What Now? A Parent’s Guide,” where psychologist Dr. Andrew Kahn explains how to take a mutual time-out when your child is upset. One key detail: Tell your child when you’ll come back together. This can help kids use the time apart to calm down instead of worrying about being abandoned. 

Timestamps

  • (0:44) Why mutual time-outs are so helpful 

  • (1:37) How to take a mutual time-out 

  • (7:00) What you can practice ahead of time

Related resources

Episode transcript

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns."

I'm Dr. Andrew Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist who has been working with kids, teens, and adults for more than 20 years. I'm also the father of a teenager, so I have a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to parenting. I'll be your host.

Today's episode explains how to use a mutual time-out when your child is upset.

So, important for you to know: We're not talking about a time-out from positive reinforcement or using time-out as a consequence for kids. In this episode, we're talking about “sports-style” time-out where everyone takes a quick break — parent and child.

(0:44) Why mutual time-outs are so helpful

So, let's talk about why mutual time-outs are so helpful. Kids need a chance to express their emotions without getting in trouble. Mutual time-out gives permission for you and your child to step away from the action before things have a chance to go sideways. You see, this time-out provides a few important things: a few minutes to have big emotions and to use skills to calm down.

The goal is not to escape, but to go and get some calm time, and then come back together so you can talk things through. 

Listen, we all have big emotions, and that's OK. But when big emotions prevent us from thinking or solving problems, then a mutual time-out can be a big help.

So, a safety caveat here, OK. Don't leave your child alone if there are concerns about self-harm, harming others, or property damage. You can also arrange a specific space for mutual time-out that allows you to keep an eye on your child during this time away.

(1:37) How to take a mutual time-out

Let's talk about how to take a mutual time-out.

First, it's really important to plan ahead. This is something you've got to rehearse with your child. 

Find a time when you and your child are both calm to talk about using time-outs or taking space. 

Explain that the goal is to give you each a chance to try to calm your mind when things are getting heated. Let them know that a mutual time-out does not mean they're in trouble, but that you're taking a little time to manage emotions that get in the way of thinking and problem-solving.

Your child can ask to take a time-out too, and they really should be encouraged to do so. Just be aware that the goal is to return and address the situation. Time-out may seem like a chance to escape for your child, and letting them know that it is not a way to escape or avoid responsibilities is important.

So, when planning mutual time-outs, it's important to brainstorm with your child, saying, like: "OK, where are you going to go during the time-out? Where am I going to go? Are we going to go to our bedrooms? A comfy chair in the living room? Somewhere else?" Decide ahead of time where your calm-down spaces will be.

During the time-out, practice taking some deep breaths. Do some wall push-ups or big muscle stretches, or do some intense exercise to help them calm their body. 

Don't forget to let your child choose the activity that works best for them, including opting to do a self time-out.

Last but not least, remember to schedule mutual time-out “fire drills” where you practice these steps when people aren't upset. 

So, we've talked about the importance of planning ahead. Now I want you to focus on what to do in a heated moment when you and your child need to take a break.

Let's talk about the three key steps to taking a mutual time-out:

  • Now first, describe the situation without judgment. Calmly tell your child: "We're both feeling a bit worked up at the moment."

  • Ask for some space: "Let's each go to our spaces for 10 minutes to try and calm our minds a bit."

  • Before you separate from your child, be sure to set a time to come back together, saying things like, "I'll come to check on you at 4:15." You don't want your child to worry about how long they'll be separated from you or to feel like they're being abandoned.

Also, make sure you have a safe space picked out in advance so that everyone knows where they're going or if you need a location that allows you to keep an eye on your child. 

Remember: Try to speak calmly, without judgment, and be sure to set a time for coming back together.

OK, so we've talked about the three key steps to taking a mutual time-out. Now let's dive a bit deeper.

First, try to ask for a time-out before you and your child reach an emotional peak. A mutual time-out can stop the escalating.

Set a specific length for your mutual time-out and use a timer. For children aged 8 or younger, limit your time-out to three to five minutes. Now, it may take some experimentation to find the sweet spot for your child. Now, for older kids and teens, keeping breaks to five to ten minutes should be adequate or you can adapt the time frame as needed for your child. 

Use the time apart to try to relax and self-calm. A good way to do this is by practicing deep breathing. Taking several slow, deep breaths while seated is a good first option for getting your body and mind calm to return to the situation.

Teaching your child to do deep breathing and setting expectation that they will also practice this skill during the time-out can be super helpful in making this strategy work for both of you.

Now, after the timer goes off, see if your child is ready to talk. It's OK if your child is crying or looking sad or withdrawn. Showing some emotion is expected. It's OK. It's really typical.

But if your child looks agitated or is being disrespectful, you can say: "It looks like we're not quite ready. Let's come back in another five minutes." Reset the timer and continue using this time to calm yourself as much as possible. Be aware that if your child isn't ready or is disrespectful, that you might feel triggered all over again.

In the next episode, I'm going to dig deeper into knowing when your child is ready to talk — signs to look for, and how to start the conversation, etc.

One really nice thing about mutual time-outs is that it can help you avoid a standoff with your child. It's not one-sided. You're not just saying, "Go to your room" or "Go sit in the corner." This is a cooperative attempt to solve problems together.

You're saying, "Let's each go to our rooms." Or "You go to your calm-down spot, and I'll go to my calm-down spot."

So, if your child refuses to move, you can still step away and avoid a standoff. Be aware that if your child is refusing the mutual time-out, you may eventually have to try some other strategies. 

Here's a safety caveat: I mentioned this earlier in the episode, but I really want to reiterate the importance of not leaving your child alone if you're worried about self-harm, harming others, or property damage. You can always ask your child to "take some space" in the same room you are, so you can put a little distance between you but still keep your child within sight.

Last but not least, consider your child's preferences. Some kids may want to stay close to their parents when they're upset. So, during a calm moment, talk with your child. Find out where and how close to you they want to sit during a time-out. You can both decide ahead of time that the plan is for you to stay close but that you'll both "take space" internally by being quiet and taking deep breaths. And as with any mutual time-out, make clear how long you're going to do the breathing exercises before you check in with each other.

Remember: Always set a time to end the time-out and come back together.

(7:00) What you can practice ahead of time

So, we're going to talk about what you can practice ahead of time. 

I want you to practice asking for a mutual time-out when things are calm, and you and your child are both doing well. Say where you're going to go and set a time for when you'll come back together. And I want you to try to practice this three times this week.

Practicing when you're both calm will make it easier for you and your child to use this strategy when emotions are running high. 

OK, folks, that's it for today's episode. 

I hope you'll join me for the next episode on how to talk to your child after a tantrum or a meltdown.

If there's one thing you can take away from this episode, it's that a mutual time-out gives you and your child space to express your emotions. It also gives you both time to let those big emotions calm down a bit.

You've been listening to "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns," from the Understood Podcast Network.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.


What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. 

Host

  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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