It sure beats the old “time out”...
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
We heard the yelling long before we rounded the corner in the airport. Further down the concourse we soon identified its source. The little girl appeared to be about five or six years old. Brightly colored pink and purple beads adorned her long braids. The colors matched her shoes and stockings. Right now, however, the braids and the shoes and stockings were going up and down in the air as the child jumped energetically.
“I don’t want to take a time out,” yelled the child. “You take a time out. You’ve been mad and yelling all day. And I am really hungry!” The mother’s face said it all—a combination of acknowledgement, embarrassment, fatigue, and frustration.
“Oh my!” exclaimed Louise (my cousin was traveling with me). “I know them! Here, watch my luggage,” and Louise took off down the concourse at a jog. I followed much more slowly. Pulling two roller bags is a challenge at the best of times. I watched as the two women embraced, while the little girl put her arms around my cousin’s waist and hung on for dear life. Both mother and daughter burst into tears.
By the time I arrived with luggage, Louise had shepherded the pair to a more secluded corner of the waiting area and I was introduced to Maybell and her daughter Clarisse. The alarm had failed to go off earlier that morning, which had resulted in a mad dash for the airport. There had been no time for breakfast. No doubt the low blood sugar in both brains had contributed to the stress.
Their flight was being announced and I barely had time to produce a couple of energy bars from my carryon. The tears subsided as the bars began to disappear. “I never liked the term time out, either,” said Louise, as we watched Maybell and Clarisse head down the jetway. They turned and waved, faces wreathed in smiles. “It has such a negative connotation for most people.”
We brainstormed on the flight, trying to come up with a term that would be more positively construed and yet accomplish the same thing. “First, we need to define the purpose for the intervention,” said Louse thoughtfully. “My parents always told me it was so I ‘could think about what I had done wrong.’” She paused. “That never seemed very helpful to me.” In fact, children often stew during a so-called time out and can end up feeling even more frustrated and resentful.
I thought for a moment. “It seems to me that the purpose is really to allow for a few moments of quiet contemplation, to break the stress cycle, and to figure out how one could exhibit a different behavior in the future, should a similar situation arise.”
“Exactly,” said Louise. “So let’s start with magic moment as the label. A moment during which your brain can take a deep breath and magically alter not only the event itself but also your behavior. If it is perceived as less punitive, much of the negative connotation may disappear.” She paused for a moment and then said brightly, “And we can call it M-'n'-M. Kids will remember that easily!” And so might the adults, I thought to myself.
Louise had a good point. All human beings experience situations of distress at one time or another and handling them effectively appropriately can be challenging for the adults. How much more so for children who may not recognize the stressor or whose brains lack the necessary tools for resolution due to incomplete development.
Louise said she was going to suggest the concept of a magic moment to Maybell when they met again at their monthly reading group. “You can take one any time, anywhere,” she said. “You simply need to decide ahead of time where you will go in your mind’s eye.”
“In my M-'n'-M, “I said, turning to look at Louise in the seat next to me, “I see myself sitting on the rocky coast on St. George’s Island in Antarctica. I am surrounded by at least three different species of penguins, all strolling unconcernedly around me within arms reach. Talk about a truly magical moment!” We both laughed.
“And parents who think ahead,” said Louise, “potentially can minimize even the need for an M-'n'-M. For example, if Maybell had packed the night before and included some snacks in her carryon, the alarm fiasco might have had less dramatic consequences.”
It can also be important to talk about the magic moment ahead of time, and explain that it is just three minutes of creative brainstorming in which you identify three things that could be done differently in the future. You can just close your eyes right where you are or, if you can, retreat to a designated spot (e.g., behind the big rubber plant in the corner) for your three-minutes of mind’s eye. When a parent obviously takes time for a magic moment and calmly talks about what could be done differently another time, this role-models the process for the child. You can also use an M-'n'-M to think ahead about something that is coming up, rather than waiting until the situation arrives to brainstorm.
Louise was really getting into the spirit of our discussion. She looked out of the window at the billowing clouds stretched out endlessly below the plane. “Hmm,” she murmured. “If Maybell had been able to take an M-'n'-M herself, what she articulated to her daughter might have gone something like this:
“I close my eyes and picture myself standing calmly behind the cascading water at Niagara Falls. I always feel safe there and filled with awe. What are three things I could change? Next time I double-check the alarm clock to prevent being rushed in the morning. I pack our bags the evening before and include snacks in the carryon. If I feel like yelling for you to take a ‘time out,’ I’ll take an M-'n'-M myself. It only takes three minutes!”
“Niagara Falls?” I asked Louise in amazement. “Have you been there? The roar of the water drowns out everything. It was definitely a magic moment in my life but perhaps not the type we’re discussing here!” Louise had toured behind the falls, as it turned out, and we both laughed at the recollection. I did, however, understand the benefit of rehearsal.
Will taking an M-‘n-M prevent negative outcomes? Sometimes. What it can do is reduce stress by placing a different spin on the process. It’s a way of becoming more emotionally intelligent. Instead of a negative and hated time out with more heat and resentment generated than solutions, a less punitive and more unique M-‘n-M may result in more positive dialogue and constructive prevention strategies. It’s sure worth a try!
Now back to Antarctica for three minutes of recalled awe! I’m taking an M-‘n'-M just because….