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PSA to anyone who struggles with how to discipline a small child (aka anyone who has spent more than an hour with a small child): There’s a growing consensus among parenting experts that time-outs—the nearly universal practice of sending a child to his room (or otherwise isolating him) so he can calm down and reflect on his behavior—are not only potentially harmful to kids but also ineffective. Thankfully, there’s a newer, more empathetic option: It’s called a “time-in.” We asked parenting guru and clinical psychologist Janeen Hayward to walk us through the ins and outs.

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PureWow: So what exactly is wrong with Time-Outs?

Janeen Hayward: When children act out, they’re actually showing an inability to manage a situation or big feeling by themselves. This is likely due to their age and the fact that the part of the brain that helps us problem-solve or pause between a thought and an action is in the very early stages of development. It may also be due to an unmet need (hunger, sleep, connection with a parent, etc.). Moreover, it’s a myth to think that children sit through a time-out replaying what happened in their minds, and thinking about how they will do things differently the next time. In order to access the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning), small children first need to be calm, relaxed and able to focus. Alternately, if kids are put on a time-out and left alone with their big feelings, they can start to build negative narratives. Think: “I’m not lovable,” “Mom/Dad is mean” or “I’m a bad boy.” When children are feeling badly about themselves or the fact that parents are upset with them, their future behavior will reflect these feelings, which becomes a vicious cycle.

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PW: Can you talk us through how to do a “Time-In” instead?

JH: A time-in means taking a break—together—to regroup. When children are very little, parents should join their kids in a quiet place and teach them how to self-calm. This might mean saying, "I can see you're very upset. I want to talk about your feelings, but first we are going to sit here and take deep breaths/hold hands until our bodies are more relaxed and calm. I will help you with these big feelings." If your child is so upset, she's unable to hear you, just sit in the room with her and take deep breaths, not saying much, until she is calmer. (Note: This can take up to 20 minutes, so stay strong.) Then, ask her to come sit with you so you can take those deep breaths together. Once children are feeling calm and emotionally connected to their parent, the work or teaching begins. So at this point you might ask her about the feelings that caused her to act out (“I was feeling jealous that my sister was getting more of your attention, so I hit her”), and help her come up with a way she can make better choices in the future (“Next time I'm feeling jealous, I'll try to use my words instead of my hands”).

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PW: Why is this more effective for improving a child’s behavior, long-term?

JH: Time-ins are particularly effective because they teach kids the skills to self-calm and self-regulate. Additionally, pulling children closer when they're at their worst shows that you are always (always) there to help. It’s imperative for children to feel safe, calm and loved in order to understand the connection between their  feelings and actions. And understanding this connection will help them better problem-solve and make smart decisions down the road.

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