“That does it, young lady,
I’ve had just about enough of that behavior
It time for a time in!”
Sure. That’s what we say, isn’t it? When were at the breaking point and one more question will drive us right over the edge. When we just want to relax after a particularly hard day and one more jump on the couch, one more toy thrown at the dog, one more bang on the piano could send you shrieking out the front door and down the highway. Hug that kid? No way. Stop reading, reach out and give the little monster some “mommy bonding time?” Well, yes. That’s exactly right. Haven’t you been listening? Someone needs your attention. Someone just doesn’t have very good get-your-attention skills yet, at least not the ones you would like to reward. But if making you mad is the best she can do, well, that’s a start; because, somebody else – you – doesn’t have very good listening skills, either.
Time out might work for a securely attached child in a safe setting where all the rules are clear and the consequences spelled out. In our home, some lines are not crossable. If you are mean to the dog, you go to your room and calm down. It’s not okay. It’s not allowed. And, you, not the dog, leave the room to get your emotions under control. But, home is safe, my daughter’s room is safe. This rule is clear and this consequence is expected.
For a child with a history of trauma, school is often not a safe place. There are too many variables – teachers and other adults that can change day-to-day; too many students with all their moods and behaviors; too many activities and too many expectations. For a child who has difficulty making attachments, even to the primary caregivers in his or her life, finding a safe harbor in this sea of distraction can be overwhelming.
Sure, the rules seem clear to the teacher, she’s been handing down the same list for years. But, not every child hears what is being said. Traumatized children may just be listening to the pitch of a voice looking for cues of anger or threat. If the rule states “Don’t throw rocks” they may not be able to generalize that to “Don’t throw snowballs” because cognitively, their brain has been developing the ability to stay safe, not the ability to make inferences. So, when the snowball flew over the fence when lobbed by a young client of mine, he truly didn’t know a rule had been broken.
Was this child given a chance to learn? “See, here are some safe things you can do with snowballs – make tiny snowmen, build ice forts and ice cream cones.” Was he given choices to build his executive functioning skills and help him feel empowered in providing for his own sense of safety: “Throwing snowballs isn’t safe, would you like to do something that is safe like swing or play with this basketball?” Or was this child, alone and engaged in an inappropriate activity, gently guided to play with others or spend special relationship building time walking hand in hand with the teacher? No. He was punished. He was given a time out and left to spend his recess, alone, sitting in full view of the other children – separate, excluded and shamed.
I don’t believe that this is appropriate for any six-year-old. But, for a child already struggling from the effects of PTSD and attachment disorder, this is unconscionable. I understand that teachers too have moments when they just need a little breathing room. Classrooms are oversized and understaffed, hours are long, specialized training is often inadequate. But trauma, attachment disorder and PTSD in young children is unfortunately not rare in our society. Parents are becoming self-educated out of desperation. Professionals need to listen to what these parents have to say and learn to address the needs of their children. I believe they will find that ‘handling with care’ the most fragile among us will prove a great benefit to all our children because all children need to be heard, all children need time in.