I got off easy. My firstborn son had only one public tantrum in his life. It was around a holiday, and we were hustling and bustling. He decided to lie right in the middle of the store entryway. I had my arms full of bagged items, and a toddler lying on the floor refusing to move.
Then along came his firecracker brother, and I quickly learned that all kids were not wired the same. I also quickly learned the value of de-escalation strategies. These work great year-round, of course, but the holidays can be a particularly stressful time for parents and children alike.
December is a sensory-overload kind of month. It’s loud. It’s busy. It’s flashy. For a lot of kids, it can be so overwhelming that they may just jingle all the way to a meltdown. For this reason, it’s good to have a few de-escalation strategies in mind. Because our children are all wired uniquely, different strategies work for different kids. It may take a little trial and error to find the right solutions for your little elf, but once you do - magic.
Strategy One: Pump the Brakes
Before you try calming your child, it helps to first calm yourself. This, friends, is half the battle. Controlling your amygdala hijack and being able to manage yourself quickly so that you can respond with intention rather than react is the first and most critical key to master.
The amygdala is a small area deep in the center of the brain, and it plays a big role in emotional regulation. It handles life or death threats, and so it can react very quickly, but sometimes it gets trippy. It’s called the amygdala hijack because when it senses a threat, it takes over, bypassing your frontal cortex (that part that does the reasoning and rational thinking). Now you’re reacting primitively from fight, flight, or freeze. Great when you’re running from the abominable snowman. Not so great when you’re facing your child’s meltdown.
The good news is that it only takes about 90 seconds to shut the hijack down and get your thinking brain back online.
Harvard brain scientist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, says, “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
She goes on to explain, “Something happens in the external world, and chemicals are flushed through your body which puts it on full alert. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body, it takes less than 90 seconds. This means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological reaction, over and over again.”
She gives a three-step process for allowing the anger to dissipate: Identify it, label it, and observe it without trying to change it. Just notice and watch it flow away as you practice a short pause. You might anchor this pause with a physical action that will cue your brain to calm down, such as closing your eyes and placing your hand over your heart. This small but significant act will change the way you respond in those first crucial moments after a situation arises.
Strategy Two: Don’t Say Too Much
Because your child is also experiencing an amygdala hijack, their rationale, reasoning brain is not accessible at the moment. This is the time for simple language, clear directions, and few words. Save the lecture for when your child’s brain is calm and responsive. Too many words, even words that are meant to be helpful and soothing, can trigger your child’s brain even more. It’s difficult to escalate a situation when you aren’t talking much.
Use this time to teach them the simple three-step strategy above. Identify the emotion, label it, and then let it go. To do this, you may choose to use your Feelings Faces Poster and Calming Strategies Cards from your Time-In ToolKit. These tools were created to help your child recognize, name, and process their emotions.
Remember, your child’s brain is still under construction. It will take time to master these skills, but eventually, their big feelings will move through without getting stuck. This is called self-regulation.
Strategy Three: Quiet, Relaxing Activities
Give your child’s brain and body time to calm down and clear out the adrenaline and chemical rush by engaging in a quiet, relaxing activity. You can use your PeaceMakers cards here for a playful way to teach emotional intelligence, or play Feelings Bingo. If you’re at home, use your Calming Corner, but if you’re out and about, use your Travel Time-In ToolKit. Need a few other calming activity ideas?
- Sensory play with a rice bin
- Blowing up crushed water bottles
- Blowing bubbles
- Deep breathing exercises
- Listening to calming music or audiobooks
- Play through improv
Strategy Four: Show Empathy
We are so often led to believe that we need to be loud, stern, or even harsh for our children to take us seriously. We are taught to fear being “too soft,” as we are told that will give our children permission to “take control” and “run right over us.” It’s unfortunate because nothing shows more strength and authority than empathy in the face of difficult behavior. When we are able to show our child empathy in trying times, we are displaying maturity and self-control. These are the very things we hope to teach our children to possess. By responding with empathy, you will soften your child’s heart thus de-escalating the situation and calming their nervous system.
Empathy is the first step to responding to EAR statements. If you haven’t yet heard of this, EAR Statements is a technique you can use to help calm others. EAR stands for Empathy, Attention, and Respect.
EMPATHY: “I can hear how upset you are.”
ATTENTION: “I’d like to help you if I can.”
RESPECT: “I can see that you are trying hard.”
Strategy Five: Get On Their Level
For my six-foot-one teenage son, that means I need a step stool, but generally, you’ll want to get down to eye level with your child. Our brains are hardwired to recognize threatening postures. You can avoid triggering a fear response in your child’s brain by coming down onto your knees in front of him and getting eye level. Even if you are being calm and kind, towering over someone can feel threatening. Imagine a giant standing over you! Even if that giant is being nice, it feels threatening. When you are trying to calm someone and de-escalate a meltdown, your posture matters!
Remember, every time you or your child uses one of these strategies, you’re strengthening the pathway in your brain that will make it easier to self-regulate in the future. I hope these five strategies help your holiday season be a little more joyful and bright!