My Husband and I Instituted "Parent Time-Outs" And, Damn, We Needed This


This weekend, my husband and I were trying to tackle household chores that we no longer have a spare minute to do during the week. I was vacuuming rugs with our dog yapping at my heels, and he was emptying the dishwasher before promptly filling it back up.

We were both mentally drained after a solid week of self-isolation . . . We had no escape from the grind. As a result, we were snippier with each other and less patient with our kids.

We were both mentally drained after a solid week of self-isolation, which didn't allow for any of the daily parenting breaks that come with school and daycare. My tension was high now that I couldn't steal away to a 5 a.m. workout class or a post-bedtime Target run (the only forms of "me time" I could truly count on, pre-coronavirus). My partner also had a much shorter fuse than usual these days. He may have always complained about his rush-hour commute before he was relegated to an indefinite work-from-home status, but he certainly benefited from that alone time in the car and the pace of corporate culture.

Now, we had no escape from the grind. As a result, we were snippier with each other and less patient with our kids.

So, there we were, just trying to tidy up before we embarked on another week in which every day blurred into the next, when our two kids ran into the room, each complaining about the other. I wasn't in the mood to engage, so I kept the vacuum running. My partner carried on sorting the silverware. Our kids continued jostling for our attention.

Then, all of a sudden, my husband's bellowing voice cut through the dog's barks, the vacuum's whirs, and the kids' whines. He yelled: "I'M SICK OF YOUR ATTITUDES! JUST STOP IT! NOW!"

My five-year-old instantly started wailing. The three-year-old echoed her sentiments. I felt my blood pressure rise. In general, we try (emphasis on "try") not to yell at our kids for several reasons, not least of which is because it simply doesn't work for us. It never de-escalates the situation. On the contrary, it makes frustrating encounters only last longer and usually requires that we apologize for raising our voices.

He returned in better spirits. It had helped.

So, naturally, my husband's yelling prompted me to yell. At him. It wasn't pretty, but halfway through me yelling at him to "calm down" (the worst thing you can say to someone who's not calm) and yelling at him about how he "always does this" (more sound logic), I realized the kids were watching.

Still in a bit of a blind rage, I said, "OK, you need to go into time-out!"

The words startled me as much as, judging by my husband's reaction, they surprised him. He resisted, but I stood my ground. "Seriously, go take a time-out. Now."

He then left the scene of the crime and retreated into our bedroom for the next 30-odd minutes. (We didn't even plan it, but he followed the classic rule that you remain in time-out for however many minutes you are years old.) Sure, I didn't love that this meant I was flying solo with the kids when I too could use a half-hour to just lie in bed and mindlessly listen to a podcast, but it was worth it. He returned in better spirits. It had helped.

The next night, I stepped on a toy I'd asked them to pick up seven times already. I let out one of those angry grunts, looked at my husband through rage-filled eyeballs, and said aloud, "Mommy's going in time-out!"

We've now officially instated parent time-outs into our family's "house rules." We even hashed out some guidelines:

  • Parents can't take a time-out just when they want a little break. We've got complicated work and homeschooling schedules and need to do our best to stick to them. These time-outs are meant to provide a private place to process anger, stress, and frustration away from our kids.
  • Anyone can tell anyone else that they need a time-out, within reason. This means that if I'm arguing with my husband, and my oldest daughter notices, she can tell me I need to take a time-out. If I make her sit down for dinner when she doesn't want to, sorry, but that doesn't qualify.
  • Parents are exempt from discussing the time-out afterwards. Although the kids, after completing a time-out, are expected to process the events leading up to it and are encouraged to apologize, adults get a pass. It might not be the most productive move, but it's working for us right now!
  • Parent time-outs should happen infrequently. They shouldn't be necessary more than once per day of isolation. If a pattern of frequent parent time-outs is being taken, we'll need to figure out some new coping strategies, like doing bedtime shifts or adding in more screen time.

We explained the general concept to our kids, who had always been under the assumption that their parents were exempt from this type of behavioral modification. Our general script went like this:

"Just like you, Mommy and Daddy get frustrated sometimes, too. We will try to stay calm the same way you do. We'll take deep breaths, we'll ask for space. We'll punch a pillow or stomp our feet. But if we forget and we yell and shout or slam a door? Well, then, just like you, we will get an instant time-out!"

The kids were an easy sell. They surely liked that we were getting them, too, and they actually were better at respecting our need for uninterrupted space when we labeled it a time-out versus just "mommy needs to be alone right now."

At some point, we'll be out of self-isolation and will reinstitute the systems that afford us mental breaks from our children and each other. We'll be better equipped to recharge our batteries, but I know we'll keep parent time-outs in our back pockets. We'd lost our tempers before we were all trapped together, and like most parents, we surely will again.

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