Mindfulness for Meltdowns: Give Your Kid a ‘Time-In’ Instead

Father talking to daughterThere is nothing more heartrending than watching your child mid-meltdown. It doesn’t matter if the cause is big or little, triggered by anger or disappointment—the pain your child is feeling is real, and sometimes, as parents, we can’t just “fix” it.

As a counselor, I work with families and children to help build self-regulation. Most of the kids I see are emotionally intense, so meltdowns happen frequently. As a mother, I’ve been in the trenches, trying to calm and console a sobbing child.

Why do kids have meltdowns? And what can parents do to help?

Kids typically have meltdowns because they don’t like the way they are feeling. At times, they don’t have the words to verbalize their feelings. Other times, they may be so upset that they don’t have the maturity to balance their strong emotions with their behavior and it manifests as crying or yelling.

One concept gaining traction lately is the “time-in” instead of a timeout. When a parent gives a child a time-in, the child is given the help and support they need to find the tools to self-regulate. A timeout is more of a punishment; a time-in is an opportunity to coach your child in self-regulation strategies.

Are both appropriate at different times? I believe so. But a child who is having a fit about not wanting to eat a grilled cheese sandwich may benefit more from a time-in than a child who needs a timeout because he is in trouble for hitting his sister. (Note: If you, as a parent, are so frustrated that YOU need your child to take a timeout so you can also take a few moments to self-regulate before instituting the time-in strategy, do so! Parents need to practice self-care.)

So … what, exactly, should a parent do during a time-in? A time-in is a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness with your child to help regulate emotions. I work with kids all the time on breathing techniques and muscle relaxation strategies to help them reduce their feelings of anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. But when they get home, they don’t use them! Their parents suggest, “Have you tried the breathing you practiced at counseling?” Almost 99% of the time, this simply leads to increased frustration for the child as they insist it doesn’t work.

The more intense of my children is my daughter, who is 4 and a half years old. Recently she was having a meltdown about something that was blown way out of proportion. (My own coping skill is blocking things from my memory, but that’s a topic for another article.) As she cried—loudly—I could feel my shoulders tensing and I tried to figure out if I could fix the problem. I knew I couldn’t until I got her calm.

I pulled her onto my lap and held her tightly. “Come on, honey,” I said. “Let’s do some breathing. Are you ready?” Clearly, she was not ready, but I plowed ahead. “Let’s do the birthday cake.” I held out the flat palm of my hand. “Let’s smell the birthday cake that just came out of the oven,” I said, and took a slow inhalation through my nose. “OK, now it’s time to blow out the candles.” I held up five fingers and waved them to represent candles and slowly blew them out. I modeled this several more times before she was able join and eventually calmed herself enough to try to talk about what was happening.

This is a simple breathing technique, but mindful breathing is one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety and distress. If your child is too old for the birthday cake analogy, sit next to your child and encourage them to breathe with you until they are calm (or at least calmer). You can count out the breaths slowly (in-2-3-4-5, pause, out-2-3-4-5). Try to make physical contact with your child if they will allow you to do so.

This simple method for using a time-in encourages your child to build an important and basic self-regulation strategy, enhances the trust they have in the relationship with you, and fosters a quicker recovery from meltdowns. As this skill builds, your child will likely begin to implement it on their own, making life better for everyone in the home.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, therapist in O Fallon, Missouri

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Seraphina

    Seraphina

    March 18th, 2015 at 7:40 AM

    This concept of the time in versus out? Brilliant! I really do wish that more parents would be mindful of how punishment feels for children and how ultimately none of them learn anything from the methods that are being employed other than how to try to come up with ways to not get caught!

  • dreama

    dreama

    March 18th, 2015 at 10:56 AM

    I sure do wish that this would have been the school of thought on raising children when my brothers and I were growing up.

    Instead, more often than not we would get a swat on the rear and be told to go play outside.I am pretty sure that it was less about teaching us a lesson and more just about getting us out from underneath our parents.

  • Ginny

    Ginny

    March 18th, 2015 at 2:55 PM

    Very important for kids to understand that just because they have a meltdown does not mean that the world is then going to stop and revolve solely around them. I think that when kids act like that many times it is all about getting the attention that they feel like they are lacking. You don’t want to give them that kind of reward for bad behavior because this is what they are looking for.

  • Ashleigh

    Ashleigh

    November 18th, 2016 at 10:54 PM

    I agree with this so this is a very new concept for me. I’ll have to think about it some more

  • Francine B.

    Francine B.

    March 19th, 2015 at 1:32 AM

    Well written article. Good luck with time-ins. Parental frustration is a big part of that equation; I remember how difficult it can be. I also wonder about the trend toward such a child-centered culture that it seems sometimes that it’s “the tail wagging the dog.” But I am old-fashioned. And I am not sure what is best anymore.

  • Harper

    Harper

    March 19th, 2015 at 3:46 AM

    for some parents it feels like it is all about “teaching a lesson” in a punishment way and not in a way that will actually teach the child something useful

  • emerson

    emerson

    March 19th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    I hate to play parent of the year, but I tell you, I hate the way my brother and sister in law discipline their kids. They have left them totally in charge of how the house is run and talk about a house of chaos! I can’t hardly even stand to be around them because of the attitudes that this has nurtured in my nieces. I am sure that they feel the same way but I would much rather talk to my kids about what they are doing wrong than to just give them free rein and ignore it all like they do.

  • Georgina

    Georgina

    March 19th, 2015 at 5:56 PM

    I love the idea of this and it sounds like it will work really well but what would you suggest for a much younger child? My son is 1 and I think he is getting frustrated. He comes over to me and bites me straight away when he starts to get bored or angry or frustrated. He then ends up having some time out, in a safe area near me as I’m not sure how else to convey to him that what he is doing is wrong and that it hurts me (physically). I then bring him out and he gives me kisses to say sorry and we have a hug. This is fine at home but when we are out is an issue as I have nowhere to put him. I don’t want to shout at him or get angry with him but he doesn’t understand if I say a firm ‘no’, he just laughs! Today for the first time he bit another child, badly, when he was trying to hug them. I think, just going by his others actions, he got overexcited and wanted to hug them but bit instead so I’m not sure what response this merits from me. I told him off but he was so confused and then cried because the other child was screaming. It was awful and I was really embarrassed that he had bitten someone. So, how should one deal with a young child having frustrations and difficulties in the same kind and gentle manner as the article above? Xxxx

  • Patti

    Patti

    March 29th, 2017 at 4:43 AM

    When my children were very young, i did not let the fact that we were out in public prevent a time out or any other appropriate intervention. I remember putting my three year old son in a corner of a store as a time out. Teaching your child is more important than being embarassed. When there are no immediate consequences, children do not learn and behaviors will continue. You can find a space…time outs (or time ins) can happen almost anywhere.

  • Hanna

    Hanna

    March 20th, 2015 at 10:16 AM

    This is the perfect way to parent your child and yet it is the hardest thing in the world to do sometimes!

    You know that it makes so much more sense than a time out or a spanking or the other things that we have all resorted to from time to time, but sometimes I think that there are parents who lose their ability to be rational more than the children ever do!

  • clarke

    clarke

    March 21st, 2015 at 8:40 AM

    and most of the time the parents should take a little time in with them!

  • Dee

    Dee

    March 23rd, 2015 at 3:58 PM

    Just think about how incredibly awesome it would be to raise a child from a very early age to know how to control their meltdowns and to become aware of what their trigger events are. I am not saying that we have to create little adults here, but wow, what a wonderful thinking that this will be for them as they become adults and already have these skills that so many others are missing intact!

  • Karina

    Karina

    March 26th, 2015 at 4:32 AM

    I’m surprised that parents put kids in time out for a meltdown, although it probably shouldn’t. I have my loss of temper all too often, but I do recognize that when my kids have meltdowns it’s their surge of emotions that they can’t handle. I think parents and kids need a good time in :)

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