3 Positive Alternatives to Time Outs for Your Toddler

By Carrie Bruno

October 14, 2019

Carrie is the founder of The Mama Coach. She is a RN, IBCLC lactation consultant, sleep consultant and mama of two little guys. She leads the North American team of Mama Coaches and is committed to making motherhood easier.

Toddlers can be tough shells to crack. We think we have them figured out and then they surprise us by learning a new skill and moving on to a new milestone. One day they love Paw Patrol and the next you are faced with a twenty-minute tantrum about why you shouldn’t have put the show on in the first place. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone when you’re feeling frustrated with this age group. All parents have moments that they want to throw up their hands and give up on parenting, but because that is not an option we have to push through and find a method of parenting that works for you and your child. 

Expected Toddler Behaviour

As hard as these days can be, we want our kids to be pushing boundaries as they approach the toddler years. Babies and toddlers are learning about the world so quickly— much faster than adults learn any important skills— and to quickly learn what is socially acceptable in our culture, kids will see how far they can go with behaviour until they reach a limit. They want and need a parent or caregiver to show them what is expected of them. When we provide the same response to a pushed boundary every single time it is tested, children learn quickly that they will not get the response they are hoping for when they ask over and over again. Its hard work but it will be worth it in the end when your child has clear expectations of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not okay. 

Self- Control

If there is one thing that is very underdeveloped in the toddler’s brain, it is the act of self-control. Self-control can be difficult for adults to manage at times and it makes sense why children have a difficult time understanding this concept. A two-year old’s brain has minimal capability to understand what to do when he wants something. He sees something he wants (for example, a new toy) and his brain says “that looks so amazing and you would have so much fun playing with this!”. His brain does not say “my mom has to work to pay for that toy for me”. It also does not say “Christmas is in 60 days and if I wait, I bet Santa will get this for me” because toddlers also can not understand the concept of delayed gratification. I’m not saying this because I think you should buy him the newest and most expensive toy because he doesn’t understand no. What I am saying though is to consider why your toddler is not happy that you are saying no. 

According to Lea Waters, Ph.D. and author of the book The Strength Switch explains how four major factors deplete self-control:

  • Resisting impulses
  • Making decisions
  • Suppressing Emotions
  • Stress

With this in mind, sometimes a time out is not what a toddler needs to reframe his emotions. Having a tantrum in the middle of Costco is hard to manage as a parent—- but so is being two. Consider that most tantrums are a result of the loss of self-control. Simply put, they are not getting what they want and they are frustrated. We know that emotions can feel very strong for a toddler when they are hungry, tired, or overstimulated— but now we can also think about how their self-control impulses have been strained in the day and what has led up to this release. 

Here are three options when you are finding that time-outs aren’t effective for your toddler:

Have a “time-in”

If your child has lost control to the point that they are at risk for hurting themselves, or are going to hurt you with the wild and unrestrained flailing, consider having a time in. This is when we take your toddler out of the situation that is causing the stress (a self-control depleter) and spend more time allowing your child to express his frustration. Consider this situation:

Johnny can’t play with the cabinet full of breakable wine glasses because it’s not safe. There are five other family members in the room, speaking loudly, watching a football game and yelling at the TV. You tell your son that he can not play with the wine cabinet and he proceeds to fall on the floor, kick the couch, kick you, hit his fists on the wall and cry. This situation went from zero to sixty in 30 seconds.

A “time in” would look like this: Mom stays calm and tells Johnny no. Mom gets down on the floor to Johnny’s level and holds his hand. Mom then waits for Johnny to take a break in his kicking (so she doesn’t get hurt) and picks Johnny up with a big bear hug and holds him tight into her body. Mama can then shhuuuhh him, tell him she understands that he feels disappointed, and stays firm with her answer as no. Once Johnny has calmed down enough that he is listening to what she is saying, mom takes Johnny away from the loud room and distracts him with something else he enjoys. 

In this situation, you have demonstrated boundaries, showed empathy (recognizing disappointment) and then removed him from an environment that reduces self-controlled behaviour.

A feeling chart

Often, there is a communication barrier between a toddler and her mama when she is trying to tell you what she wants. This is especially true for young toddlers who are just learning how to talk. As parents, we need to figure out their coded language immediately during a tantrum or the mood will go from bad to worse very quickly. 

Having a feelings chart and teaching your child how and when to use it can help dissolve tantrums before they happen. Start by finding a resource that describes a variety of emotions, such as emotion flashcards or a bulletin board that describes feelings. The key to getting your child to be able to use this when they are lacking self-control and his emotions are high, is to ask him to use it when he’s happy as well. When your child is feeling cuddly and calm, initiate the feelings chart to teach him that this is a picture that represents how you’re feeling. When he is feeling tired, show him what that looks like on the chart. Then when your child is feeling angry and frustrated, ask him to show you on his chart how he is feeling. This will reduce how your child is suppressing emotions, which then will improve self-control. 

Mindfulness

You don’t have to be an expert in meditation to begin teaching your child to use mindfulness when his emotions are overflowing. We also don’t need to formally sit down and tell your child to start using mindfulness for this method to work. Often mindfulness can be done without your child even noticing that you have brought it up. 

The brain is a powerful tool for controlling emotions. To a toddler that isn’t getting what he wants, telling him to calm down is going to do absolutely nothing and will likely make the situation more intense. But showing your toddler how to calm down can be an excellent tool in allowing him to use the strengths that he already has to manage a situation that is quickly escalating. 

This can be done by focusing on their five senses: 

Begin by getting down to your child’s level. “Hi Hunny, I can see that you’re frustrated that you’re not able to go outside right now. Come sit with me. Can you take a big breath? Let’s find five things that you can see — I see our dog sleeping, the plant that needs some water, your stuffy who looks like he is smiling at you, the blanket that looks cozy and warm, and the banana on the counter that is yellow. Now can you tell me four things you can hear? And now three things you can feel? Two things you can smell? And can you taste anything? Maybe that cookie that you just ate?”. 

This method helps to focus your child’s brain on the present moment and releases the feeling that they have to make too many decisions at one time. “If I don’t stop crying, mom will take away my toy, but I can’t stop crying because I’m really angry, and now I’m crying because I don’t want mom to take away my toy”. You can see how this goes. 

We get it, mamas. Sometimes a tantrum will happen and you can do nothing to prevent it and nothing to resolve it and you just need to wait it out. These days will be long but you will get through them. Other times, methods like these mentioned above can be excellent tools for your back pocket. It is important to have grace for yourself and your child and understand that all of us, including toddlers, have really hard days sometimes. 

Toddler Support

The Mama Coach is committed to helping moms navigate motherhood. If you have any further questions about your toddler’s sleep, we would love to help you! Reach out to a Mama Coach through our website and we will book you for a free 15-minute consultation call.

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