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Attention parents! You might need a timeout!

To continue the trend of my blog posts recently, I figured I'd address something that comes up quite frequently with parents I've worked with in therapy. Many parents come into therapy sessions at the end of their rope. They are tired, frustrated, and don't know what to do after a full day's work, running errands, doing household chores, scraping together something for dinner, helping with homework, taking the kids to and from practices, etc. This list could go on forever.

As a result, moms and dads develop a lowered threshold of patience and tolerance. They become irritated more easily, yell more frequently, and put kids in timeout after they can take no more. Parents can also end up struggling with their kids during timeout which can make the situation even worse. Playing out this scenario verbally with concerned parents leaves me with two questions I usually pose:

  1. What is really going on here?

  2. Who do these timeouts serve?

To answer the first question, it becomes obvious when breaking down the day that exhaustion is a major player in what is driving the actions and behaviors of the parents. There is a lot on mom and dad's plates at the end of a stressful day and when that threshold is lowered, they are not their peak rational self. The more emotional self takes over because the rational self needs a break. That's when exhaustion leads to frustration, anger, and "blow ups".

Part two of what's going on is that kids are usually very perceptive to their parents' emotions, though they don't have the capability to voice this. What they do is end up mirroring the emotions and actions of their parents. For example, when mom yells, the kid yells back. This can escalate and cause a timeout to be put in place.

The second question can be a little trickier depending on the situation at hand. 4 out of 5 times, I would guess the timeout is really for the parents even though it is directed towards the child. A timeout is just a period of time to take a break and more often than not, it is the parent that needs a break from the situation. Their emotional self is so overloaded that it seems like the only course of action to take that makes sense to de-escalate whatever is going on. What is dangerous about putting children in timeout in these instances, however, is that they feel they are being punished when this may not be the case at all. It might even damage the relationship with the child in the long run if this cycle continues regularly.

So what can be done to remedy this cycle? Use the following steps as your guide when you feel yourself escalating:

  1. Stop and take at least one or two deep breaths.

  2. Take your "emotional temperature" by asking yourself what emotions you are feeling in that moment and how strongly you feel them.

  3. Observe what is triggering you and making you feel that way.

  4. Talk with your child (if you are able) about what you are feeling and why you are upset in as calm a voice as you can.

  5. If you are not able to do #4, put yourself in timeout and step away from the situation (as long as your child is safe) until an appropriate amount of time when you can return and address #4.

  6. Acknowledge any feelings your child might have and share the conversation rather than make it into a lecture.

  7. Continue to self-soothe if you find you are being re-triggered.

  8. Take it slowly! There is no need to rush these important moments of learning and connection for you and your child.

Operating from a more calm, rational mind will help de-escalate these tense situations, cause fewer timeouts and "blow ups", and create healthier family functioning. It is important for moms and dads to take their "emotional temperature" regularly to avoid unhealthy interactions with their kids and even with each other. Being preventative will usually be better than reparative, but even if you mess up from time to time, there is always the opportunity to make things right, so give yourself some forgiveness and grace and realize these moments are learning opportunities.

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