Mommy Needs a Time Out

I am test-driving Jane Nelsen’s  “Positive Discipline.” As I read the book, I am trying the techniques, and I will share my experience with you.

Here’s the scene: I have just busted my daughter for some infraction, and she is defensive and angry. I begin to explain the limit I am setting — let’s be honest, I am lecturing — and she is not listening (the hands covering her ears are a giveaway).  “You need to listen to me,” I say, trying to contain my frustration and anger, but I might as well be an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon: “Mwah, mwah, mwah-mwah-mwah.” My perfectly good lecture is going to waste. What do I do?

Positive Discipline suggests I give us both a time out. But it is not a punitive time out — it’s what Nelsen calls a “positive time out,” a cooling off period. So I say, “Boy, we’re both really upset. Let’s talk about this later when we have both calmed down.” Then I walk away.

It turns out that taking a break is an enormously effective tool. In this case, my daughter and I were getting nowhere. Even without the hands over her ears, she was incapable of hearing me because she was emotionally flooded — overwhelmed by her emotions and in a state of high stress. And if I’m honest with myself, I was also at the mercy of my emotions. We both needed to regroup.

That’s all well and good, but then what do I do when I come back to her later? This step is really important, or there will be no learning. First, I come back too soon and she is still mad; in fact, my return after only ten minutes seems to re-ignite her anger.  So I leave her alone and come back still later. This second time I approach softly; I do not lecture. Instead, I acknowledge her feelings and mine as well, I apologize for yelling, and I ask for her help solving the problem. Miraculously, she listens and begins making suggestions. We are working together.

Now, admittedly, I’m not crazy about all of her solutions (her first suggestion is basically that I let her do whatever she wants, but then she gets a little more reasonable), and she’s not crazy about mine. But we do both agree to be more respectful, so that is good. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure we’ll have to confront the underlying issue again. But at the very least, the positive time out stopped us from getting further out of control and helped us practice healthier habits around conflict.

My conclusion after one test drive: positive time out is a good tool to add to my parenting tool belt. Actually, I and at least a few other mothers I know had discovered this tactic in a much less conscious way when in a moment of desperation we locked ourselves in the bathroom because everyone in the house was screaming. We felt like horrible mothers, but really we were instinctively seeking our own time out. So I am grateful to Nelsen for helping create a framework and a structure for cooling off and coming back together in a positive way.

By the way, this works when arguing with your spouse, too.