Children’s temper tantrums: time-in or time-out? A response to Dr. Siegel
“My 7-year-old, Zoe, is an absolute angel at school. We know she’s smart but our jaws drop when her teacher tells us she’s an ‘absolute pleasure’
We tell her we love her all the time and we give her hugs and kisses whenever we can. We’re honestly very loving parents. But, seriously, every day, over literally nothing, she can go from zero to a hundred in a split second. She thrashes around and throws things and tells me she hates me – she’s literally out of control. It’s totally unpredictable and she can go on for over an hour.
We end up screaming at her and my husband and I end up screaming at each other. And then the baby starts crying and her brother’s telling everyone to shut up. She’s driving us crazy. We can’t enjoy ourselves as a family because she spoils things. We’re also worried that the neighbours will call child protection – I’d think something was seriously wrong if I were them. When she’s out of the house, I feel so guilty saying it, but it’s really peaceful.”
Why’s she so different at home? Is it us? Everybody’s saying time-out is bad for her. Should I give up my part-time work?”
TIME-OUT VERSUS TIME-IN
- What’s a temper tantrum?
Zoe’s temper tantrums (TT’s) are powerful, sudden, explosive reactions to a sense of threat that involve the whole body in an intense, aggressive display. The threat can be anything viewed as such. Zoe may be tantrumming for any number of reasons. It could be her sense that you’re away more, or it could be that you’re more easily frustrated with her because, well, you’re juggling jobs – motherhood and work. Or perhaps you merely said, “No,” to something that she wants. Any or all of these events can be interpreted as threatening and therefore trigger a tantrum.
TT’s become increasingly frequent between one and three years of age, but there’s usually a sharp decline in the display after three years of age. The fact that Zoe continues to tantrum at home suggests that, while she may be cognitively smart, there is a lag in the development of her capacity for emotional regulation.
2. Zoe’s reaction is ‘fast and dirty’.
As a matter of survival, most animals have ‘fast and dirty’ responses to threatening situations, and humans are no different. We’re hardwired for the quickest reaction route.
A ‘fast and dirty’ reaction is great when it’s a response to something really threatening, say a redback spider on your wrist. As a defensive reaction, the brain relocates all energy resources in the body to serve fight or flight. Unfortunately, humans can regard almost anything as a danger equivalent to a redback. Yes, you’re no redback, but in Zoe’s unconscious mind, you’re close to the equivalent when you obstruct her goal by saying, “No!”
3. Zoe needs to learn to regulate her emotions at home.
Emotional regulation is the ability to shift or block a defensive emotion reaction. For example, say Zoe’s goal is to have a lolly, “NOOOW!” You say, “No. Not now darling, it’s nearly dinnertime.” Many children Zoe’s age would be disappointed with a “No!” answer, but they’d emotionally self-regulate. They’d take a moment to consciously move on, or they’d consider the consequences of an inappropriate response and then move on. The Zoe’s of the world tend not to take the window of opportunity to consider these and other possibilities. They don’t regulate their emotions. They just explode.
Without emotional-regulation, Zoe’s ‘fast and dirty’ appraisal system naturally kicks in. Her emotions-rocket launches immediately. And, if you think it’s noisy on her outside, it’s all happening on her inside too. Hormones and nerves kick in to launch her muscles, particularly her arm and leg muscles, for fight.
The more intense her reaction, the longer it takes for her emotions-rocket to return to her neurological launchpad, so you’re in for a long, biggy. To get back to physiological baseline, the alternative ‘rest and digest’ system has to kick in and hormones have to settle before she comes to her senses.
4. What happens when your emotions-rocket launches in reaction to Zoe’s rocket?
When Zoe’s rocket launches she becomes hyper-vigilant to negativity, especially yours. In other words, if you shout or even look angry, your negative emotional reaction refuels hers, so her rocket refires with a high-octane performance that’s headed for the stratosphere. That’s when she’ll go berserk. If you re-launch, you’re both out there, lost in emotional space. The question begs: where’s Zoe’s role-model?
Even your non-emotional reaction can fuel hers. If she ever screams, “Don’t look at me!” she’s right. It’ll only make her angrier. It’s best, therefore, and if possible, to remove her from the context in which she exploded – to time-out. Time-out functions as a defueling. If she resists, it’s best to ignore her.
5. What regulates emotions?
When the ‘fast and dirty’ appraisal system detects a threatening situation (like “No lollies, it’s nearly dinner time”) the slow, accurate system that regulates the emotions rocket, is switched off.
Think of this system as the ‘emotions-rocket control centre’. It’s thought to be located in the frontal lobes of the human brain, and it’s linked to the emotions-rocket. Filled with conscious, rational thoughts, this system is the emotions-rocket regulator.
It’s good that the emotions-rocket control centre is switched off when the survival threat is real – say, a redback spider that’s too close for comfort. As with all humans, evolution ensured that Zoe doesn’t get too rational in her appraisal of it: hum and hah about what it might be and whether it’s cute or nasty. On the contrary, she wants to jump away or flick it off immediately so that it leaves, and she survives.
But, she would want to learn to use her slow, accurate brain system to control the emotions rocket when there’s no real survival threat, there’s just her mum saying, “No, darling.” Time-out gives Zoe the opportunity to learn to “rest and digest” so that she can use that system to consider the advantages to her tantrum.
6. “Time-in” versus “time-out” during intense distress.
Despite the volumes of research to support its effectiveness, time-out has recently been given a bad rap. Daniel Siegel, the person who’s campaigned most vocally against time-out, would rather have us give kids “time-in”. That means that during Zoe’s “times of distress”, he would “encourage parents to comfort and soothe and connect” with her (Siegel, 2015).
That might work with some kids, but not with others. I’d be surprised if it worked with Zoe. Here’s why: Once her slow, accurate regulatory system is switched off, Zoe’s unlikely to be in a position for “Connect and Redirect,” as Dr. Siegel proposes. For that, Zoe would need to activate her frontal lobe ‘Rocket Control Centre’. As mentioned, this almost never happens during a tantrum. Instead of pacifying her, your loving comment might refuel her because at this point, she’s a hundred per cent focused on the lolly, not love.
Dr. Siegel also suggests that we “always want to say yes to children’s emotions, and to their experiences with the world.” But do we? While Dr. Siegel might want to accept Zoe’s hyper-aggression and the tantrum experience, most people believe that parents have a job to do: help their children learn to flexibly regulate their emotions.
Dr. Siegel’s suggestion that time-out is ‘disconnecting’, is probably true, but perhaps in a good way. It could disconnect Zoe from the tantrum-triggers in her environment. However, it doesn’t necessarily disconnect her emotionally from her parents. In fact, Zoe might be well attached to her parents. I’ve worked with hundreds of kids who have anger management problems and no attachment issues.
So, time-out versus time-in? During a tantrum, ‘time-out’ gets my vote.
Why Zoe’s an angel at school.
The fact that Zoe is a teacher’s dream means that she is capable of regulating her emotional behaviour. Behaviour is ‘context-specific’. Certain environments bring out the best in us, or the worst, and often, something in between.
So, what’s up with her at school? It is likely that she intuitively understands the negative social consequences of her anti-social behaviour. Other kids might find her explosive behaviour scary, so they’d probably keep away. Zoe could, therefore, isolate herself socially – an undesirable position to be in by most people’s standards. And her teacher is likely to move her out, for safety reasons and as per the school’s discipline policy.
As the most gregarious of all animals, we humans need a social connection in the same way that we need food and water. Hence, there’s a good deal of research to show that a sense of reputation is hardwired in the human brain. Zoe intuitively knows that her tantrums aren’t cool. It’s therefore not in her interests to stage a show in front of people who don’t love her unconditionally.
This school-specific regulation requires lots of cognitive effort. By the time Zoe gets home she might be motivated to expend the same level of effort. That’s because, at home she knows that she doesn’t have to try as hard. Why? Because it’s highly likely that she intuitively understands that with parents, it’s not easy to lose your reputation in the long-term: there’s unconditional love. One sweet smile and a loving kiss and all is forgiven.
7 important summary points for parents:
- You know the deal about quality time when they arrive home from work. It’s important.
- It’s very important to make sure that no matter what happens, you keep your emotions in check when Zoe explodes. Stay calm and loving (though at that moment, liking is difficult). I know that this is an incredibly challenging thing to do, but it’s one of the most important things that you do do! It enables Zoe to calm down. And, you provide a worthy role model for emotional self-regulation.
- After loads of research, there’s no valid, reliable data to show that time-out is bad for kids, when conducted in the way described above.
- Time-in: comforting, soothing and connecting, is vital after time-out. Once you’ve given the reassurances of love alongside the kisses and cuddles, take the opportunity to deliver, explicitly, the emotional self-regulation lessons.
To do this, when Zoe’s calmed down after time-out, it’s important to ask her about her thoughts and feelings during her tantrum, and her thoughts and feelings after that. For example: – “Was it worth it? – Did your tantrum get you the lolly? – What could you do instead? – What might be a better way to try to get the lolly? – How do you feel now? – What might you do next time to avoid the bad feelings? – What should happen now? What should be the consequence for your behaviour?
Prevention is better than cure.
The ideal solution for temper tantrums is to prevent them. If you have some idea of the triggers, you can remind explosive kids about their self-regulation strategies.
To get a sense of common triggers, it’s a good idea to keep a behaviour diary. You could do this in table form, with columns for the days of the week, and rows for Time, Date, Triggers, and Action taken. Once you have data for a week, you may be able to detect patterns in the triggers and the context for them – time and place and people.
If you have managed to detect repetitive triggers, you can prevent the tantrums that might erupt by saying something just before a possible eruption, like: “Zoe, look at me. We need to take some deep breaths as if we’re blowing up a balloon.” If Zoe refuses to do the breathing, ignore and continue with number 7.
- After 5 or 6 deep breaths (or not), continue: “If you have a tantrum, what might happen? How will you feel? So, perhaps make a good choice. If you want to chill in your bedroom while you’re making a good choice, that’s fine.”
- If Zoe manages to make a good choice and all’s well, move into time-in, with congratulations and kisses and cuddles.
The bottom line: I recommend time-out to calm down, and time-in for Zoe-types to learn emotional self-regulation within a loving, connected context.
Names, locales, people and incidents have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or