Taking a Break: A Technique for Addressing the Heart
The Scriptures emphasize that God’s primary interest is the heart. The wise parent looks beyond behavior to what’s going on at a deeper level. This involves the child’s attitudes and motivations.
As you begin to teach children to focus on their hearts, you’ll see them make attitude adjustments, not just behavior changes. You’ll find yourself getting to the root of disobedience or immaturity and helping children make lasting changes.
One helpful tool to address the heart is what we call a Break. This tool is for any age child, in fact, it’s an adult skill. A Break helps any person who is off track start the process of getting back on track. Eventually children learn to take a Break themselves. This means simply pulling back from the situation, letting emotions settle, and regrouping internally in order to move forward. Until children are able to do this for themselves, parents help them by requiring it and practicing.
Taking a Break removes a child from a situation or activity immediately following misbehavior. Remind the child of the rule if helpful and then tell the child to take a Break to change the heart. The location for the Break is a place away from any activity, stimulation, or distraction. The child shouldn’t talk to anyone until ready to return to the parent. The parent also shouldn’t dialogue with the child until the child is ready to come back. Other benefits of family life are suspended while the child is working on the heart. Taking a Break allows the child, under the guidance of the parent, to determine when to come back and talk about the problem. When used correctly, the Break can help children look deeper than behavior and see the need to allow God to work on their hearts.
Not the Same as Time Out
Taking a Break is not the same as time out. Many Christians have a hard time with time out, and for good reasons. Typically, time out is a term used for isolating a child as a punishment for doing wrong by simply sending that child away for a set period of time. This is “punishment by isolation” and can be counterproductive to the discipline process. Expecting children to solve problems alone is unrealistic. Furthermore, the isolation can appear to force children away from the love of the parent. A Break is a much more valuable technique because, if done correctly, it focuses on the heart and protects the parent-child relationship.
The goal of the Break is repentance. The Break teaches children a more accurate picture of reality. There is a loving God who hates sin. When his children disobey him, they experience separation as a natural consequence of disobedience. God lovingly waits for them to return to him with confession and repentance. Sometimes though, it’s not so much about sin as it is about intensity and being out of control. Either way, the Break becomes a valuable tool for heart change.
The Break provides the motivation to repent by allowing the child to experience the feeling of missing out on involvement in family life. Parents can force a child to change actions but they can’t force a change of heart. Parents can, however, motivate children to change. Because separation can motivate repentance, the Break can be helpful as part of the discipline process rather than being viewed simply as a consequence. Remember though, we’re not separating the child from the love of the parent, we’re just having the child sit alone and quiet in order for emotions to settle and the child to adjust the heart (passions, expectations, intensity, emotions, desires).
Through the principle of separation, children learn that a person cannot enjoy the benefits of the family life without also abiding by the principles that make it work. Parents, while communicating unconditional love, teach their children that separation is the natural consequence of disobedience.
Transfer Responsibility to the Child
One important aspect of the Break is that the child helps determine the length of time spent in the Break. Since repentance is the goal, the parent can’t say for sure how long a Break is needed. To come back from the Break too soon may short-circuit what God needs to do. To remain too long may cause unnecessary discouragement. We suggest when sending the child to take a Break, the parent say “Come back and see me when you’re ready to talk about this.” The wise parent will be able to discern from the child’s face, posture, and tone of voice whether repentance has taken place, or at least that the emotions have settled down so the child can move on in the discipline process. If the child is not ready, sending him or her back to the Break may be needed. Eventually children learn to use the Break time to adjust their hearts.
When ready, the child initiates returning to the parent for the Positive Conclusion, a discussion about what went wrong and what should be done differently next time. This is a primary difference between the Godly model of the Break and what is often practiced in time out. The length of time a child stays in the Break isn’t important except as it relates to the child’s needs. Frequently all that’s needed is a reminder and the child is ready to change the heart and try again. In this case, the Break would be short, lasting only a few seconds. Other times, because of stubbornness, a change of heart may take longer, twenty minutes or several hours. Either way, the child is encouraged to initiate when the Break is over.
The Break Can Be Used in Your Family
From a very practical standpoint, the Break can be an excellent way to deal with much of the day-to-day correction children need. It can become the primary discipline technique used in a family to help children change. The three-year-old who screams out of frustration, the seven-year-old who continually interrupts, and the thirteen-year-old who teases relentlessly all need to understand why their actions are wrong and see the need to change the heart as well as their habits of behavior.
At first, children may resist the Break. Some may not want to lengthen the discipline process; they’ll try to get it over with too quickly. These children are especially in danger of modifying behavior without addressing the heart. It’s important for children to learn how to take a Break and make sure their hearts are responding properly before they move to the solution.
Children may try to come out before they’re ready or they may defiantly move out of the place where they were told to sit. You don’t have to engage in a battle of wills. Just walk away and come back a few minutes later. For the child who is being particularly defiant, you can just say, “You’re in a break.” It’s not so much the place, but the state of recognizing there is a problem that must be addressed.
Even children as young as three- or four-years-old, although not able to understand the word “repentance,” can understand having a soft heart or settling down. The first step of repentance is simply that the child settles down, stops fighting, and is ready to work on the problem. Older children are able to process some of what went wrong and come back to the parent with a specific plan for what to do right next time. In essence the Break requires children to settle down, realize they’ve done something wrong and be willing to change.
Sometimes children, especially those who are just learning to take a Break, want to come back before they are ready, or they choose to stay there longer than necessary. The parent then must help these children to process their emotions and learn to initiate the conclusion of the discipline appropriately. In these cases it might be appropriate to have a child sit in the break place for at least five minutes. The emphasis on “at least” is important because it may take longer than that. The child needs to evaluate his or her readiness to return.
As you teach your children to take a Break and to understand repentance, you are giving them a valuable gift that will last a lifetime. This is a skill adults benefit from as well, so teaching it to children when they’re young will get them started on a healthy path. To listen to a live seminar about the Break, consider a downloadable MP3. We have one about the Positive Conclusion as well. These are part of the 8 lessons taught in the Parenting is Heart Work Training Manual with 8 Audio Sessions.
This material is also presented in the book, Home Improvement, The Parenting Book You Can Read to Your Kids. The book contains many practical ideas for helping children change their hearts, not just their behavior and has just been released as an audiobook!