I’m in the mud right now with my four year old. She’s been talking back and having tantrums on a daily basis. Between her explosions and this miserable winter and all of the mundane details of life that require my ongoing attention, well, I’m worn a little thin. I suspect we all are.
As a result, my responses to my daughter’s meltdowns have been inconsistent, to say the least. Sometimes I’m funny and sweet with her, but other times I’m just too tired and I snap at her or send her to time-out until we can both calm down.
Time-out. Yikes. That’s a tricky one these days.
This past fall, Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of No-Drama Discipline: The Whole Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, published an article on Time.com in which they talked about the problems with time-outs:
“Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.”
Siegel and Payne Bryson went on to clarify in a later article on Siegel’s website that,
“Time-outs were initially designed to help children calm down so they can reflect on and change their behavior as part of a larger parenting strategy. Research supports the efficacy of time-outs when executed correctly. If parents use them appropriately as suggested in the research — infrequently, calmly, with lots of support and connection and positive support — then we are all for that. However, based on our years of experience of working with families, we’ve found that time-outs are often used in a reactive and punitive manner that leaves children feeling more reactive and dysregulated.”
These are both excellent points, and I totally agree with them. Which begs the question, of course—why am I putting my daughter in time-out if I don’t fundamentally believe in the practice?
I have come to think of it as a BAPP, or Best Alternative to Perfect Parenting. In an ideal world, I would be able to calmly and kindly respond to my daughter’s outbursts. I would be able to take a time-in, and reconnect with my little one as I help soothe her difficult emotions. (I talk about soothing as a fundamental practice for staying connecting to our children in my book, Parenting in the Present Moment.)
But the truth is that my reality often isn’t ideal. I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I’m flooded by my own big feelings. And there are times when the best I can do—for my daughter and myself—is to have her sit on the stairs with her lovey while we all calm down. And when I say that’s the best I can do, well, it’s true. Despite the wealth of knowledge and information and practices that I have at my disposal, there are moments when my body gets tense, my mind becomes rigid, my emotions get strong, and I just can’t think my way to a better outcome.
Nor can I choose one.
When that happens, I believe that getting a little space from my daughter is a far better outcome than yelling at her (which also happens in my home) or continuing to escalate the situation by negotiating or arguing with her.
So, I find her lovey, I put her on the stairs, and I breathe. I calm myself down, and then I go to her. And we snuggle and talk and get into a better place. (For at least five minutes, until it happens again. Until we finally make it to bedtime.)
Finding our BAPPs is a crucial step to being the most empathic, effective parents we can be. All too often, we read parenting books that offer advice based on research and best practices. This advice is good and smart and useful, but only if we know how to think about it properly. For years I would respond to most parenting advice by berating myself for not being able to follow it on a regular basis. When that happened, nothing would change.
Over time I’ve learned to think of most parenting advice as North Star Practices – they can help point me in the right direction, even as I know that I may never actually reach my destination.
Once I let go of perfection as a possibility, I free myself up to focus on what I can do. Sometimes, I can do kindness and acceptance.
Other times, the best I can do is not make things worse.