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Kids from Trauma Need a “Time-In” Instead of a “Time-Out”

Disciplinary practices around the world cover such a wide range of topics that hundreds of blogs could be written about them without ever repeating an idea. One of the most talked-about types of discipline is the time-out method. As most of us in the 21st century know, this involves separating a child from what they were previously doing (for a short amount of time), in order to give them a chance to cool down, as well as an opportunity to see what they’re missing out on.

For the most part, doctors are strict proponents of it, behaviorists modify it, and psychiatrists dissect the long-term implications of it.

And everyday parents? We’re all just over here trying to wing it. Like, which method are we supposed to be using today, y’all?

One of the most amazing things about the internet, though, is that it allows society to continually mold itself without the obstacle of information delay. When one of us learns something, we can instantaneously teach it to the rest of the world so they can learn it, as well. Granted, not all of the information we’re “learning” from others on the internet is true, but a lot of it is.

Here’s some information that might be really useful to you about discipline techniques if you work with children from trauma.

The techniques you use on “typical” children will almost never work on children who’ve experienced trauma. The reason for this is that most kids have a healthy hierarchy of needs. They have food and water, they have physical safety, and they feel like they’re loved and belong in their families. The only needs they’re actively trying to fill are self-esteem and self-actualization.

Kids from trauma tend to get stuck in one of those lower needs and can’t move past it. Even after YOU feel like you’ve given them what they need (food, safety, etc), they might not feel like they’ve received it yet, so they continue reacting out of need. Many of them get so stuck on those physical needs that their brains can’t move into the emotional needs at all. This is when disciplining gets really tricky because what punishes a child from a typical home might be a reward for a child from a trauma home.

Time-outs, for example, are exactly what a kid who has Reactive Attachment Disorder wants. More often than not, they want to be separated from their peers/family because they don’t find value in human connection (unless it provides one of their basic needs). A kid who has RAD is 100x more likely to become upset over having gummy bears taken away than they are being removed from play time. This is because of which need they’re trying to meet.

I’m not saying to use their “needs” to manipulate them into behaving how you want. I’m simply saying that time-out probably isn’t teaching them anything. It might be a necessary tool to use when removing them for safety issues, but it isn’t showing them what they’re missing out on. It isn’t helping them understand why human connection is important, and it isn’t teaching them how to interact with their family members.

The only thing it’s doing is giving them another opportunity to learn how to be alone.

For MANY of these kids (even those without RAD), giving them a time-in is so much more effective than a time-out. A time-in follows the same timeline and concept of a time-out, but it involves pulling them closer to you instead of pushing them further away from their friends, siblings, or whatever activity they were doing. Time-ins give kids who are generally uncomfortable being around other human beings the opportunity to get close with them in a controlled environment.

More than anything, it sends the message that their caregivers won’t push them away when they’re bad. They will pull them closer and love them harder. They will choose the child, even when it would be easier not to.

It also removes the opportunity for the child to be unsafe while they’re upset. If they’re not alone, but instead closer to their parent/teacher than they were before, then they’re less likely to hurt themselves or others, damage property, or reinforce habits of isolation.

And if you’re working with a kid from trauma who seems to SCREAM for one-on-one attention everyday, YES you can still do time-ins with them! It might drive you absolutely insane because they seem to never leave you alone anyway, but I promise, it is effective if your goal is long-term healthiness.

My foster daughter earned herself a time-in this past weekend. The choice she made would have earned other kids a weekend of grounding, but for her, I chose a weekend of being attached to my hip. From Friday after school until Sunday at bed time, she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without me, outside of changing and using the restroom.

If I’m being honest, I dreaded it because it felt like a punishment to me, too. She was up my butt for three straight days, and I never got a moment’s peace.

But you know what the result was? We were forced to have conversations that I would’ve usually avoided by sending her outside to play. And the fact that none of the other kids were around gave her the opportunity to talk to me about things that she might not otherwise have thought about. It forced her to slow down a little, which send her brain in a new direction.

It also reminded me how much I love and adore her. And when you’re working with kids who aren’t biologically your own, who come from really hard places, it never hurts to have a reminder of all the reasons you care about them.

Trust me when I say that a time-in is a million times better than a time-out.

Kids from Trauma Need a “Time-In” Instead of a “Time-Out”

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). Kids from Trauma Need a “Time-In” Instead of a “Time-Out”. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Sep 2019
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