About a year ago I was at an indoor play gym with my barely one-year-old daughter. Shortly after letting her down to explore she ran up to a little girl a bit smaller than her and smacked her in the face. It was unprovoked and came out of nowhere. I was embarrassed, but the other mother was gracious and understanding. I told my daughter that it wasn’t ever ok to hit someone and we apologized.
Then again, out of nowhere, my daughter chased after the same little girl and did it again. I was mortified! We then ended our playdate and went home.
Little did I know then that this was the start of a year-long pattern of behavior for her. Almost every week we were called out of church service because she would grab another child in the face. In group settings with other children, I was literally running around chasing after her so I could intercept before she hit another child, usually a smaller girl.
Clearly, this now was a problem. When she became more verbal, I started modeling proper introductions by saying hello and asking for a high five. This still didn’t help, and I was now spending half my day and most of my energy putting her in time out. It was a seemingly neverending cycle that was going nowhere.
After trying multiple strategies my husband and I finally sat down to discuss our next steps. It was also agreed that we would not punish her physically (i.e. spanking or hand smacking) because we felt it would be confusing to hit her as punishment for hitting. We decided to make an appointment with our pediatrician to see what resources were available to us.
It turns out our office offered a free family counselor from Beech Acres. We made an appointment, and after getting to know us, she asked what we did for punishment. I told her we did time out, but it just wasn’t effective anymore. Then she said four words that terrified me; “Then stop doing it.“
My whole life I’ve been programmed to believe time out is the end all be all for punishments, and now she wanted me to get rid of them? This lady must have been crazy! She then explained a concept called “time in“.
It’s behavior prevention instead of behavior correction. When I see that she is about to hit, I step back or grab her hand and as calmly as I can tell her no, it is not ok to hit. Then we talk about why she was about it hit. If it’s with me or my husband, it’s usually because of frustration. If it’s with other children, most of the time it’s because they can’t communicate hello, so she literally grabs their attention.
Another part of time in is positive reinforcement. This has been the most helpful tool given to me so far. Previously I would tell her things like you weren’t very nice to that little girl, or you didn’t make very good choices today. Now I focus on telling her the positive such as how she is kind and had gentle hands, or she did a great job listening. We also tell her before we enter a group setting that she needs to be kind to her friends by having gentle hands, and if she feels like she needs to touch them she needs to ask for a high five.
The last key component is positive physical contact. Whenever she used to hit or throw a giant tantrum I would set her down and walk away. I thought I was doing the right thing by allowing her to see I would not tolerate the behavior and ignore it in hopes of change. Our counselor explained to us that it actually causes a feeling of abandonment, and to her negative attention is still attention.
We have only had one incident with another child since we gave up time out. It happened just a few days after we stopped, but this time my whole reaction was different. I still told her no, it wasn’t ok to hit, and we apologized. But after that, I told her how we are always kind to friends, and next time we needed to have gentle hands. She then said, “Ok, Momma. Next time I have gentle hands with my friend.”
And she did!
Not only have I seen great results with time in, I’ve also been a lot less stressed as a parent. I don’t lose precious time fighting with her over time out. By encouraging her with positive words and praise she has gained the confidence a two-year-old needs to be successful in social situations. She will now tell us how she was kind and gentle. She knows that it’s ok to make a mistake, acknowledge what she did, apologize, and move on.
But most of all she’s two. There are all of these BIG emotions going on in her little body, and she just processes them differently than most kids. She’s not a bad kid or a bully, she just needs a little more patience and guidance than others. And you know what? That’s ok.