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They're Not Just For Kids

by David J. Decker, M.A., L.P.

The time-out has been a staple of effective parenting for a long time. When kids are acting "out of control," it has been a very helpful tool to separate them from the situation, allow them to think about what has been going on, and then come back to go through what happened in a more productive fashion. It has been used successfully for decades with children, but unfortunately, we as adults all too often have forgotten to use it for ourselves when we need to get away from a potentially explosive situation.

In fact, taking a respectful time-out is the cornerstone of an effective anger and abuse management program. It allows you to temporarily get away from a situation where you are potentially escalating to hostile and punishing behavior and to "take a break" to calm yourself and avoid doing or saying something that you will only end up regretting later. The time-out strategy is not a magic "cure-all," but it is an important first step in learning to do something different when there is the potential for a destructive and volatile escalation.

If you think about it, a time-out in human relationships is not that different from taking a time-out in a basketball game. The basketball coach and his or her players have a game plan and specific plays and strategies that work well for them as a team. When the other team is "running up points" and the game is getting "out of control," what does the coach do? He or she calls a time-out and pulls the team away from the game temporarily into a huddle to help the players get back to the plays they run best and to the game plan that they have for themselves as individuals and for the team as a whole.

Although the goal in relationships is not to "win the game" or "score points," it is important to ask yourself: "What is the 'game plan' I have for myself when I am relating to others, especially the people I love?" If your "game plan" is to treat those around you in a caring and respectful manner (even, and especially, when you're irritated or frustrated), you need to do something to intervene when you find yourself slipping out of who you really want to be. Taking a time-out assists you in remembering and getting back to the "game plan" you have for yourself.

The goals in taking a time-out are to slow down your internal process (just think about how fast things get moving when you are getting angry), to work actively at letting go of your tension, to begin to think more clearly and realistically, and to avoid feeling "out of control," which can otherwise result your becoming disrepectful, hurtful, and punishing to those around you. Using time-outs effectively can help you from doing and saying things that, from past experience, you know you will feel sorry about later.

Below are some specific steps that can help make the time-out an integral part of how you begin to handle the anger you experience.

STEP #1: Especially with those who are important to you, sit down (before an explosive incident even occurs) and talk about how you want to implement the time-out in your relationship. This is the time to talk about the guidelines you intend to follow when a potentially explosive situation arises. For many people, it is helpful to write out and then use a "Time-Out Plan" to determine the specific guidelines you will follow to make the time-out an effective tool in your life. Do not assume a time-out will just happen! Begin to approach your interactions with others, especially those close to you, in a more conscious and planful way.

STEP #2: Come to a clear sense of agreement on what you intend to say and do when you are actually taking a time-out. For example, you might want to say "I need a time-out," "I need some space," or "I need to get away for awhile." Or, you might come up with a non-verbal sign like the "T" hand signal for a time-out in sports. It does not matter what you do, but it does need to be done in a respectful and non-threatening way and both of you need to understand what the signal means.

STEP #3: During an actual conflict or argument, be direct and assertive and actually use what you have previously decided to do. Tell the other person that you are beginning to feel tense and that you need to take some time away to slow down and think more clearly about the issue. Work hard not to make overt or subtle threats like "I don't know what is going to happen if I don't get away." Learn to identify and tune into your anger triggers that can serve to alert you that you are escalating and a time-out is necessary.

Be sure to respectfully communicate your need for a time-out and to be specific about how long you will be gone before you make the effort to re-connect to talk about the issue. Remember that a time-out is not supposed to just another way to avoid talking about important issues that arise between the two of you.

STEP #4: Take responsibility for your own time-out. It is not up to someone else to tell you that you need to take one. And it is not your responsibility to tell someone else to take one. If someone is yelling or saying hurtful things to you, you are also escalating internally even if you have not yet become hostile yourself. That is also a time to get away from the situation. For some people, being told what to do in an escalating situation like this tends to only increase the anger that they feel. No one can keep you or anyone else from becoming controlling, explosive, or punishing. But you can make the decision to take care of yourself.

Also remember that the other person may not like or agree with your decision to take the time-out. But keep in mind that taking a time-out when you have the potential to be disrespectful is a good way to take care of yourself and to communicate respect and caring to those around you. Taking a time-out may not be recognized as helfpul by the other person initially, especially if you have left arguments in the past and then not returned or refused to talk about the issue later on. But it can be a very positive way to build trust and intimacy if it is used in the ways being discussed here.

STEP #5: Get away from the person and/or the situation. For couples, it works most effectively to actually leave your house or apartment. At a minimum, go to a previously-agreed-upon place in your residence and stay separated. Avoid the temptation to get in a sarcastic comment, "the last word," or a "parting shot" as you are leaving. Make an effort to respond respectfully to your partner even if you believe he or she is purposely being hurtful and "provocative" to you at this point! In a work situation, leave the situation to go to the bathroom or go for a short walk if possible.

STEP #6: Give yourself enough time to de-escalate, relax, and re-assert control over yourself and your emotional reactivity and defensiveness. This generally means thirty minutes to an hour. When you become tense, stressed, and angry, the release of adrenaline and other hormones in your body work to increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. Take enough time for these physical changes in your body to return to their normal state. You will get a better sense of how much time you need when you actually begin to practice taking your time-outs.

STEP #7: Actively work to calm yourself both physically and emotionally after you have left the situation. If you do not focus on doing this, you can simply end up escalating yourself even more while you're actually on the time-out. Immediately after you separate, go to a "quiet space" in you mind. This involves visualizing a place you have actually been or a place you can imagine yourself being where you can feel calm, peaceful, relaxed, and safe. This "quiet space" might be a beach on the ocean or walking in a beautiful woods. Go there in your mind immediately to start the de-escalation process and center yourself.

Avoid continuing to brood about the perceived "wrongs" that you believe your partner has done to you. Try instead to think about and appreciate their perspective and what they might be experiencing and feeling. Use positive self-talk to look at the situation in a different light. Slow down your breathing and take deeper breaths. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Contact a friend who can be supportive and yet help you calm down at the same time. It is not helpful to get hold of someone who is simply going to "bash" the person you are angry with.

Be careful about driving a vehicle during a time-out since you may escalate further as a result of other drivers' behavior and since your vehicle can become a lethal weapon (for you and others) when you are feeling explosive. Usinig alcohol or other mood-altering drugs is not a good idea either as these can potentially contribute to more escalation and make the problem even worse.

STEP #8: For couples especially, a vital part of the time-out process is making a commitment to return to discuss the issue and then actually following through with this commitment on a consistent basis. This serves as a means to begin to address important relationship issues, to talk about your feelings with one another as they come up, and to learn to resolve conflict in the relationship together. Otherwise, the time-out strategy becomes just another hurtful weapon and a way to avoid the issues you and your partner actually need to talk about. As part of the process of returning, it is also important to ask clearly and directly if your partner is ready to talk once again.

If your partner is not ready, then your time-out needs to continue until your partner communicates a desire to re-connect with you. If you return to the situation and again begin to escalate, take another time-out until you are able to talk about the issue with no risk of being hurtful, punishing, or abusive.

STEP #9: In order to truly integrate this skill into your life, you need to actively work at and practice the use of time-outs. However, remember to give yourself time to make this skill into a positive tool in your life. Be patient with yourself as you are learning this new way of coping with your anger and your desire to get back at the other person. Try to notice the excuses you have used or continue to use to keep yourself in the midst of the fray. You might be prone to say to yourself, "I'm not that angry," "I shouldn't always be the one who has to leave," or "Why should I quit now. I'm winning this argument." These types of excuses will keep you from doing what you need to do to get out of the situation. Continuing to practice time-outs whenever necessary and making them an important part of how you choose to act can be an huge step in truly intervening in your explosive and destructive attitudes and behaviors. In the end, it will also promote trust and intimacy in your relationships with your partner and others.

Here is just one last thought. If you're feeling uncertain or confused about whether you should take a time-out at a time when an escalation is occurring within or around you, try to keep this phrase in mind: WHEN IN DOUBT, TAKE THE TIME-OUT!

Some things to think about related to this article


© 2001 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 -





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