ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN
I have a 9-year-old daughter who doesn’t just have tantrums—she has fits. When she is angry she screams, throws things, and (at her worst) can hit, bite, and scratch if we get too close to her. She wails about how ‘mean’ we are, and then she adds that she is ‘bad’ and ‘no good.’
We’ve been told to give her “Time Outs,” but they don’t work. We usually have to drag her to her room and hold the door shut while she trashes her belongings. Do you have any other ideas to suggest?
Discouraged on Dale Drive
Watching your big kid melt down like a 2-year-old is a big problem. By now, your 9-year-old should have begun to learn how to deal with distress without falling apart. She could even begin learning some ideas about how to solve problems creatively, instead of destructively. Instead, your daughter seems stuck with repeating the same futile cycle. I imagine she feels pretty discouraged, too.
I suggest that you back up a few steps. Before your daughter can learn how to deal with her problems, she first needs to learn how to deal better with her emotions. In other words, she needs to learn how to help herself feel okay, especially when things aren’t going her way.
Getting sent to “Time Out” isn’t helping your daughter learn these skills, obviously. Figuring out how to calm oneself also means figuring out how to help oneself feel better—an unquestionably positive experience for children and parents alike. For children like your daughter, this is especially important because kids cannot learn to do better until they learn how to help themselves feel better.
In contrast, “Time Outs” have always been meant to make kids feel bad. Animal behaviorist Charles Ferster first coined the term in 1957, when publishing the results of his laboratory experiments with pigeons and chimpanzees. Ferster, who went on to lead Silver Spring’s Institute of Social Research, quickly saw his idea picked up by child behaviorists as an efficient way to ‘extinguish’ children’s undesirable behaviors. (As a historical side note, the Institute of Social Research became infamous after Ferster’s tenure, when abusive animal experiments there led to the founding of PETA in 1980.)
“Time Outs” may sometimes persuade children to submit to adults, but it does nothing to help children learn how to quiet their own emotional storms. The experience of getting put into “Time Out” feels bad to most children, piling more hurt and anger on top of their previous distress. “Time Outs” can help adults avoid yelling and hitting, but they do nothing to help children learn self-control. They could make it even harder for children like your daughter to learn these vital skills.
So, let’s start over and create truly beneficial learning experiences for upset and angry kids. Learning how to take a break to cool off and calm down when angry or upset is a very good strategy for anyone—young or old—to practice, and this is what you can teach your daughter.
Start by choosing a calm and peaceful moment, and invite your daughter to create a comfortable, pleasant space for herself. This will be a place she would like to go to, whenever she wants to help herself feel better. (She will probably want to give this space a nice name, such as her “Feel Better Space,” since most kids associate “Time Out” with feeling bad.)
What would your daughter want to put into her special space? Would she like to have some cuddly toys? A beanbag chair? A fuzzy blanket? Would she want to scent her “Feel Better” space with perfume or herbal oils? Does she feel better when she uses her “Feel Better” supplies to draw, to squish play-dough, to look at favorite picture books, or listen to her most loved music?
Plan with your daughter how she would like to be reminded to use her “Feel Better” space whenever she is getting upset or is actively raging. Would she like you to smile and point to it? Hand her a note? Hear you begin to play her “Feel Better” music? If she is “stuck” and cannot go to her “Feel Better” space on her own, would she like it if you brought her beanbag chair or favorite fuzzy pillow to her?
As you can see, “Discouraged,” your daughter’s “Feel Better” space won’t be offered to her as either a threat or a reward for her rage. Instead, you will be offering her your support and encouragement to choose between whether she wants to continue to feel bad or help herself to feel better. In the process, you will be helping your daughter learn that she is capable of finding and using the skills she needs to quiet her own emotional storms and regain the ability to deal better with her problems.
For more good ideas about how to help your child learn self-control, self-soothing, and self-calming, I highly recommend the book, “Positive Time-Out: And Over 50 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in the Home and the Classroom” by Jane Nelson.