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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Mother calming child having tantrums

Time-In to Help Calm Tantrums

You’ve heard of using time-out to discipline a child – but have you thought of using time-in?

I remember when I first struggled to understand this concept. My son was going through a rough patch of temper tantrums and defiant behavior. This was stretching my patience thin, so I asked his preschool teacher, Sandy, for advice. “He needs more one-on-one positive time with you,” she said.

This was hard to hear – I was working at the hospital and raising my kids at home, so where was I supposed to find more time? Besides, it seemed hard to imagine that a child’s misbehavior could be solved by spending more time with them.

It may seem illogical – but it does work. Here’s the basic idea: Kids are often acting out to get more attention. So any attention we give then is better than less. We know that kids who spend more calm, happy one-on-one time with a parent act out less often.

The moment your child misbehaves let them know their behavior is not okay. Use natural or logical consequences to correct the behavior when it occurs– and make a note to yourself to spend some extra quiet time with them later. Plan for a few extra cuddles, a game of their choosing, or a walk together.

Here are some other ideas for time-ins:

  • Aim to spend special time together every day. Even at the end of a busy day, 5 to 10 minutes reconnecting with your child can make the rest of the evening go smoothly. If possible, spend 10 to 20 minutes per day.
  • Let your child take the lead in play during time-in. Follow and copy what they do. If they choose to pretend to be a child, you play the role of the dog. If they’re the bus driver or Mommy, you’re the bus rider or the baby, etc.
  • Have multiple positive interactions for every negative one. That’s what the research shows is needed for relationships to go well. The more difficult the child, the more important this time is.
  • Give more positive attention to your child so the more connected to you they feel, the less they’ll misbehave to get your attention.

A time-in can also be used in the moment that a child is upset or misbehaving. Often, a child who’s hitting, biting, or being defiant is frustrated because they don’t know how to handle a situation. In a way, they’re crying out for help. You can help by taking them to a quiet place, pulling them up on your lap, giving them a big hug, and asking “what’s going on”?

With my son, teacher Sandy’s advice worked like a charm. After a few days of focusing on spending some extra time with him, he started to calm down and throw fewer tantrums.

Life gets awfully busy – but at times our kids need us to slow down and enjoy time spent focusing on them.

Disclaimer: If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following: (1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder. This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.