Time Out, Not Time In


I’ve been thinking about writing this blog for a while, but I have put it off, probably because I know many people will disagree with what I’ve got to say.

Our 10 year old daughter has a diagnosis of Attachment Disorder. She also has a lot of other ‘complex’ issues, as the professionals like to describe it. Unfortunately many of the strategies we are advised to try to help manage her behaviour don’t work, probably because of these ‘unnamed complexities’.

One example of this is ‘Time In’. We realised very early on that ‘time in just’ didn’t work for any of us. Winnie loves nothing better than a good fight. She often smirks repeatedly mid melt-down. And if she has an audience she is in her element. When Winnie is in this frame of mind, any attention results in a rapid escalation of negative behaviour. She will lash out, swear, destroy things and laugh while she is doing it. If we employ the ‘time in’ strategy these episodes can last for hours.

If we ignore Winnie when she is in this state, the fire usually dies down very, very quickly. And this is the strategy we have used now for several years, both at home and at school. Initially people are sceptical as children with Attachment issues need to be kept close at all times!

No they don’t. Not if it means someone gets hurt, everything around you gets smashed up and your three year old has to listen to a torrent of four letter swear words and threats to his physical well-being.

Time out may not be popular in the world of Attachment, but it works for all of us, even Winnie. We all need time to calm down, breathe and then regroup. If we didn’t use time out, then life in our house would be totally unbearable.

And then a few weeks ago we stumbled upon another strategy, which goes against everything we have been taught so far.

The theory is; children with Attachment Disorder need to be told what is happening each day so that they feel that they are in control. They need structure, visual timetables and above all else, preparation, as the unknown scares them. And we have always practised this. Until recently when things had got to a point where they were completely unmanageable.

So over the last few weeks we have done the exact opposite. The result? Life has been so much better. Probably the best it has been for at least 18 months!

It had got to a point where family life was just miserable. Winnie was destroying everything we did in her attempts to be in control and always the centre of attention. We really were at our wits end. We just couldn’t take any more. And so we stopped telling her what we were going to do. Instead we started responding with the phrases such as: “I’m not sure let’s just see how things go.”

When Winnie goes to bed at night she always asks what we are doing tomorrow. We now say: “Let’s see how things are in the morning and then decide.”

When I drop her at school she asks me what we will do when I pick her up. I say: “I don’t know let’s see how the day goes.”

The result? A much happier, calmer, less controlling child. We still have the odd blip but these are now once or twice a week, instead of once or twice an hour.

A couple of weeks in to using this strategy and after several stress free days, I made the mistake of telling her that her Grandma and Auntie were going to take her out for a few hours the following day. She went to bed an excited little girl. She got up a Gremlin. Extremely unpleasant, verbally abusive and destructive. That morning she broke a metal leg off her new bed. She also repeatedly informed me in a screechy way, punctured with swear words that she was going to go out for the day and I couldn’t stop her. It made us realise that Winnie believed that it didn’t matter how she behaved, she would still get to do what she wanted. Needless to say we cancelled the outing. To say Winnie was shocked was an understatement.

We also realised that Winnie cannot cope with planning ahead. She does not need to know what we are doing tomorrow, or this afternoon. And so we have continued with our ‘let’s see how it goes’ strategy and our lives have been transformed. Things aren’t perfect but they are much calmer. We don’t go to bed at the end of the day feeling like we have just done ten rounds in a boxing ring. And we are getting to spend ‘happy’ time together as a family. Something that had become almost impossible six weeks ago.

Why is this strategy working? Well I think it is because:

  1. There is nothing for Winnie to be in control of, or to worry about, because as far as she knows nothing is planned
  2. There is nothing to destroy
  3. There is no build up to transition, one of the biggest triggers in our house
  4. Nothing fun happens if the Gremlin appears (yes I know this is breaking all the rules again as it is a form of the controversial concept of reward – but it is working at the moment).

So the moral of the story is….don’t beat yourself up if the text book strategies don’t work for you. There is no one size fits all. These strategies are working for us at the moment. In six months time we might have to try something different. But that different will be what is right for us as a family and what is right for Winnie, a unique, complex, individual whirlwind.


8 thoughts on “Time Out, Not Time In

  1. Exactly us with our 10 year old daughter take the control away for her and it works. Monday night is usually pizza night. Daddy was unable to swing by pizz shop last night. A bit over wrought about it but daddy made cheesy bread still best dad in her world!

  2. Wow! So,so like my own situation and so,so helpful. Thank you for sharing this. I have thought myself hittting ‘rock bottom’ with behaviours and here you are showing something that has worked for you.
    I will definitely try this method out and see what the results are.

  3. Our daughter is only 4 but exactly as you describe, time in fuels the fire!
    Ive felt terrible letting her meltdown alone but it is safer for everyone including her & we can move to the relationship rebuilding so much faster

  4. I can empathize fully with this and whilst I do not disagree with you regarding the use of time out (if it works it works!) For us time in, is the lesser of two evils. Whilst like yourselves it seemed to become more coercive, if we use time out my Spinosaurus follows us, becoming more and more abusive and destructive.
    I really identify with not telling them what is happening, it works for us too. The need for control is all consuming as is the need to self sabotage x

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