Yesterday I posted a picture of Mr. Toddler in timeout and some interesting discussion surfaced in the thread following. I felt the need to flesh out some of my own baggage with timeout, in addition to sharing some thoughts that may or may not be useful. These are totally my own views and not meant to offend any parenting style. We can totally agree to disagree.
For context, I worked at various residential treatment centers for children in state custody for several years. During the latter part of that time, I was a lead trainer for crisis intervention and behavior management. At that time, the agency I worked for was muddling through its own intervention crisis, of sorts, and had put together a training model that merged snippets of previously used interventions and emerging, evidence-based, best practice. My struggle with the resulting blended model was that I did not believe it took into account individual kids’ trauma histories, strategies were not therapeutic and staff had difficulty keeping up with the changes, instead relying on their own parenting philosophies while working with these very tough, damaged kids. The result was a lot of people trying really hard to do the right thing and think about what was best for kids in care but in the moment, ultimately relying on inserting their own adult authority. Timeouts were a frontline intervention rather than focusing on any prevention. Adults got punitive, things got consistently shame-based, kids were isolated from groups for long periods of time and their behavior typically escalated rather than deescalated, and ended in terrible physical restraints. In essence, kids continued to dig themselves into a hole of consequences because agency systems and adult expectations (level systems, sticker charts, individual philosophies) got in the way. Kids were not only not learning from mistakes and not building skills to negotiate stressors, they were also often unclear about what their initial 'offending behavior' was. Awful. Trust was impacted, relationships between kids and adults were damaged, kids were further traumatized and the overall culture did not serve children in the way that they deserved.
I’d like to believe that timeouts have come a long way since this period of time in my professional life. I’d also reeeeallly like to believe that kids in foster care do not resemble kiddos stuck in institutions (group homes, residential treatment facilities, hospitals, other congregate care). Depending on the age of the kiddo and the number of homes they’ve transitioned to/from and the extent of their trauma history and the broader impact on their social emotional development…I struggle to separate the two entirely.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there are lots of people working in the trenches who are good people working hard to do right by kids. I think people have different definitions of what this looks like and I certainly think one of the biggest challenges for social welfare agencies is to develop protocol and treatment plans that work for individuals rather than broad groups. I think that some strategies are more effective with certain kiddos than with others and I get that timeout has a place in the worlds of some families. I don’t think they have a place in ours. Here’s why:
Rewind to last night.
Here's what happened. Mr. Toddler has a pretty solid bedtime routine (which we’ve worked super hard to establish). He gets home from school and plays inside or outside, dinner, bath, PJs, books, and bedtime. We have a pretty sweet flow that works well for him and all of us. Mostly. In the last week or so (since starting a third daycare in almost as many months) he has started to melt down more frequently throughout the night (before dinner when his blood sugar is lower and he’s exhausted). Mr. Toddler, at an agitated level, looks like whining or whimpering, saying ‘no’ more frequently to basic requests, being generally inflexible, more moody and easily agitated. This agitation escalates to being disruptive with an increase in gross motor activity. He throws food, plastic silverware, his sippy cup, or rips off his bib while sitting in his high chair during dinner. He becomes pretty much unable to reason with in this stage. We usually ask him to take a breath more frequently and this sometimes helps. He’s not outrageous, as he’s still so little, but tough nonetheless. We also remove the amount of objects he can throw and try to slow things down for him. As he digests his food, his mood improves. Literally. You can see it happen. We transition from dinner to bath (he often needs to be hosed down) because it triggers a transitional shift for him in the night; he cognitively and somatically knows we’re inching toward bedtime. Bath time is awesome. It’s relaxing. He loves the bubbles. He gets quiet time to himself and we get a moment to breathe and set out pajamas, books, medicine and Tiny ready for bedtime. And then the shift. Mr. Toddler does awesome until he has to put his pajamas on. He jumps from agitated to disruptive to dangerous almost immediately (thrashes his body while screaming-basically not in control of himself). I use the term dangerous loosely here, as he is so young and so small. Though, I did hear a quote once on This American Life about how the only reason more toddlers don’t kill people is because they lack the strength. Or something.
Sometimes he shakes, rattles and rolls until he stops on his own and moves forward. Sometimes playful redirection from us is effective. Sometimes we have to wrestle him into his PJ’s because it’s too late and its just time. So we A) let him do his own thing until he comes around B) try to problem-solve with him or C) assert our parental authority and give no choices. Ugh. Enter: the timeout. We’ve called it both “taking a break” and a couple times, timeout. The discrepancy is usually indicative of our mood, to be frank. When we have more energy we ‘take a break’ and ‘try again.’ When we are exhausted and feel out of options and just want it to stop, we try to shake it up with an isolating intervention; ergo, timeout. And therein lies one of the biggest problem for me: isolating. It just does no good. Not for a toddler. At least, not for our toddler.
This is not behavior I want to continue. I don’t want this little guy feeling so distressed right before bedtime and I don’t want us to feel like we’re putting out small fires or grasping at straws. From my perspective, timeouts are meant to stop behavior. In the way past, if I was ever going to ask a kiddo to take a timeout, it was to stop their behavior. It was because they just needed a moment. If that behavior stopped on the way to timeout, I would tell them that they didn't even have to ‘sit’ a timeout. If that behavior didn't stop on the way to timeout, it was more than likely going to escalate. I knew that then. I know it now.
What I didn’t do last night was, in the moment, revisit why Mr. Toddler was struggling to put on his pajamas and then make a choice. I wasn’t curious. I was tired. I wasn’t thinking of myself as the one responsible for investigating the meaning of his behavior, I was just spent. And Tiny was crying and needed a bottle. I know my kid. I know that knowing my kid is half the battle. I know why changing his clothes can be triggering for him. I know why the word timeout, in and of itself, is triggering for him. I know why bedtime can be triggering for him. It has to do with his trauma history. It has to do with the fact that he’s a toddler. It has to do with the fact that we just moved him from the co-sleeper next to our bed to his own toddler bed across the room and despite how pumped we are about it and how exciting we make it sound for him, a little bit it sucks. I. Know. These. Things. But in the moment? Poof. Gone.
I also know that I’m not teaching him any useful skills in those moments of desperation. Zip. I know that little moments add up over time and that this is how behavior is learned and shaped. I’m ok with the occasional fail but I’m not down with doing damage.
The balance I hope to strike with Mr. Toddler in these types of situations is to explore the meaning of his behavior and to work with him/teach him to manage that behavior. To help him develop a skillset that will allow him to tolerate the frustration and regulate the emotions that come along with negotiating his life’s stressors. In toddler ways, in school-age ways, latency-age ways, in pre-teen ways, in teenage ways, in young adult ways. I’m pretty good with everything but the toddler and preschool age range. Mostly, I find him so unreasonable. Also, totally lovable. And. This is how I know I’ve met my match.
-Foster Mom (the artist)