Teens and toddlers alike can demonstrate aggressive or uncooperative behaviors as influenced by big emotions and neurological overwhelm (aka the dreaded meltdown). De-escalation tools support parents in defusing the chaos by helping children calm and regulate their nervous systems.
Meltdown Escalation Cycle
Often a child's outburst or tantrum can seem unpredictable. However, experts say there is a predictable pattern to this escalation, referred to as the acting-out cycle. To help parents choose effective interventions, it is useful to understand these seven stages:
- Calm - In this phase, your child is responsive and cooperative.
- Trigger - A stimulus sets off a pattern of behavior.
- Agitation - Your child displays signs of anxiety or may withdraw from the situation.
- Acceleration - The escalation of uncooperative, aggressive, or provocative behaviors.
- Peak - This is the climax of the incident. Your child’s behavior will feel out of control.
- De-escalation - The reduction in the frequency or intensity of unpleasant behaviors.
- Recovery - Your child transitions back to a calm, responsive state.
Reasons For Meltdowns & Escalation
Underneath every challenging behavior we see is a root cause stemming from a thought process and an emotion.
When we as parents learn to remain curious about the unmet need, we can better come to understand misbehavior as a form of communication, heading off meltdowns and deflecting escalation just by noticing and meeting these unmet needs.
The Need For Attention
When a child misbehaves, an adult often notices and responds quickly, giving children a sense of control by commanding the attention of everyone around them. An antidote for attention may be a Genuine Encounter Moment (GEM).
A GEM is five to fifteen minutes of focused attention on your child - an opportunity for heart-to-heart, not head-to-head, communication. Not every moment will be a GEM, but if you offer several a day, your relationship will improve, and undesirable behaviors will decline.
For younger children, a GEM may come in the form of child-led play. Get eye level or below, join them in their world, and allow them to be the leader of the moment.
Because teens may come less often for a GEM than a toddler - when they do come for these types of little moments, pause what you are doing, make eye contact, and actively listen.
The Need For Power
Another possible source of outbursts is the need for power. When children feel out of control, whether from stressors in their lives or from the lack of opportunity to exercise their independence, they tend to cling to control wherever they can. The goal is to empower our children rather than overpower them. Some ways to do this are by offering choices, encouraging them to complete age-appropriate tasks, inviting their help or opinion, focusing on the behavior you desire (as opposed to that you don’t), and replacing commanding and demanding with asking questions and providing information.
Other triggers that precipitate misbehavior include:
- Transition times
- Feeling hungry or tired
- Being off routine
- Unexpected changes in the day
- Feeling under- or over-stimulated
- Needing to wait
- Unfamiliar social situations
- Challenging schoolwork
Parents and other caregivers can intervene before these situations arise to disrupt the acting-out cycle. Here are some things you can do to meet these needs and regulate your child before they begin to escalate:
- Announce transitions - “Let’s set a timer for five minutes. When it dings, we are cleaning up the toys.”
- Ensure age-appropriate meals at age-appropriate times.
- Have a consistent nighttime ritual that honors their natural sleep rhythm.
- Keep routines consistent and predictable, and discuss changes ahead of time.
- Keep from over-scheduling.
- Notice your child’s cues for either movement or rest throughout the day.
- Teach the skills of impulse control and “waiting” through playful games.
- Break schoolwork into bite-sized pieces that allow for focus and celebrate small successes.
Emotional Regulation And The Brain
All humans operate from three areas of the brain: the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. Knowing these brain states helps us recognize our child’s needs and offers a set of tools for regulation.
The forebrain, also known as the prefrontal cortex, is the last region to develop, beginning around age three and continuing into the mid-to-late twenties. This is where learning, both academic and social-emotional, occurs. The prefrontal cortex allows for skills of empathy, compassion, self, social awareness, impulse control, problem-solving, and more.
The most effective tools for this brain are to meet your child where they are and teach tools in a supportive way by asking, What tools am I trying to teach, and how can I best teach them free of punishment, blame, or shame?
The midbrain is our emotional hub, known as the limbic system. This area is responsible for attachment, memory retention, and emotions.
When this brain is dysregulated, children may seem whiny, clingy, demanding, uncooperative, and nervous. An effective mantra for this stage is: name it to tame it, feel it to heal it.
When the amygdala, a component of the limbic system, is activated, it sends an impulse to the lower brainstem, which can lead to those reactive behaviors discussed above. But, just in naming your emotion (“I am mad”), an impulse is also sent to the higher-thinking brain, lighting up the gray matter responsible for executive function. The higher brain can therefore override the lower brain and, in return, help the child tame - aka regulate - their emotions and behaviors.
The hindbrain, also known as the brainstem, is responsible for survival and jumps into action when it detects a threat.
A threat can be as real as actual trauma or perceived such as having an unmet need. Because it is fully developed at birth, tots and teens can easily resort to brainstem behaviors of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn when dysregulated.
About 90% of communication with our kids is through our body language, so something as simple as getting down low, at the child's eye level or below, and saying, “You are safe”. Often, body language alone is effective in communicating a sense of safety to a child. Having diffused their internal protective responses, children can then move into higher brain functioning, feeling safe and connected.
Tools to De-escalate Meltdowns
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things do escalate. Meltdowns and tantrums are your child’s pressure valve to help them let off steam and de-stress. When met with connection, you can help your child emotionally transition, manage behaviors, and teach higher-level skills while keeping your relationship intact.
Here are some effective tools for helping your child regulate during the peak of escalation:
1. Intervene early
Notice the verbal and nonverbal warning signs that may communicate your child is escalating. These include being tearful, pacing, balled fists, shaking, clenched jaw, fidgeting, grunting, or talking in a faster and/or higher-pitched tone.
2. Center yourself
Mirror neurons communicate to our brain to echo the nervous system of others. If we come into a situation hot and bothered, equipped with our judgments and biases, our children will replicate and escalate on our energy. At the same time, if we pause to breathe and center, our children are more apt to anchor into our calmness.
It is hard to argue with someone who is not responding aggressively back to you. In general, use a respectful and calm tone (as opposed to yelling) and indicate safety with your body language by getting low, making eye contact, having open hands, a neutral/non-reactive facial expression, and a square body.
3. Avoid poking the bear
When children are in their primitive brainstem, they are unable to think logically. Avoid reasoning with them, asking questions, or making demands as it will only further dysregulate and escalate their emotions and behaviors. The time to speak logically and teach the lessons is when they are already regulated and able to access their thinking brain.
Decrease stimulation by turning lights low and minimizing the number of people in the room. The smaller the “audience” the better. If your child will not leave the room, ask other family members to go to a different location to help your child calm their nervous system.
4. Respect personal space
Understanding your child’s desire for personal space and/or closeness is helpful when things begin to escalate. Some children desire proximity while other children will feel like a cornered bear as you approach, which will further agitate their aggression and surge the situation. If needed, maintain some space to keep both you and your child safe.
5. Validate feelings
As your child moves out of their reflexive brainstem and into their emotional limbic system, validate their experience and reflect on what you hear.
- Reflect: Repeat what you have heard and clarify. TRY THIS: So, you are saying you are upset because you wanted grandma to pick you up from school today. Is this right?
- Validate: When validating your child’s emotions, use words such as because
or and instead of a dismissive but.
- TRY THIS: It makes sense that you’re upset right now because you really wanted to go to grandma’s house, and because it’s hard to not get what you want sometimes.
- NOT THIS: I see you are mad but we don’t act this way.
- Support: Let them know they will get through this and you are there for them. TRY THIS: I know this is hard and I will stay with you while it is hard.
6. Invite awareness
Sometimes, we can help a child shift their focus from what has happened into the present moment, and they begin to integrate their brain. Here are a few ways to do this:
- Ask them what they hear, see, feel, smell, or taste. One fun application is to use their fingers to track what they can observe with their senses (5 things you can hear, 4 things you can see, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste).
- Use breathwork. When we are stressed, angry, or tense, our breathing patterns become shallow and rapid. Start by matching your child’s breathing then gradually slow it down. Your child will likely mimic you, even if subconsciously at first. Help a younger child notice their belly move up and down, or, with an older child, use finger, box, or bumblebee breathing.
- Allow them to choose an activity that soothes their nervous system such as playing with a sensory toy, doing a puzzle, moving their body, or laying with a weighted blanket.
7. Share reflections
This is a time, once your child feels seen, heard, validated, and receptive, to explore what they could do differently next time, and prompt making amends if needed. Positively reinforce your child’s courageous work of noticing and managing their big expressions.
8. Return to routine
Avoid harping on the moment, but rather use it as a learning opportunity to build brainpower and connection. When your child is ready, encourage moving back into the routine of their day.
Connection is just as contagious as fear. The goal is not for your child to be void of emotional outbursts but to support and help them through the process. These steps can be completed in a Calming Corner or wherever your child is at the moment.
Generation Mindful’s Time-In ToolKit guides parents in all eight steps to help the adults and children of a household notice, regulate, and de-escalate. When we practice co-regulation with our children, they develop skills to calm their nervous systems in the face of triggers, they learn that it is safe to feel, and they begin to ask for what they want and need.
At the end of the day, remember that your child’s journey is their own. Our role as parents is to be the guide by their side, gently nurturing and loving them through all emotional states and behaviors because, after all, who they are is always love. Through de-escalation, both parent and child come through more connected, physically and emotionally.
For more support de-escalating your child's meltdowns, check out our Ultimate Guide To Building A Calming Corner And Using Time-Ins.