Sometimes, when children become extremely overwhelmed or they’re experiencing sensory overload, they have a meltdown where they lose control over their behaviors. These situations are stressful for everyone involved and potentially dangerous for both bystanders and your child. It’s helpful to know some de-escalation techniques to help you avoid potential crisis.
The Escalation Cycle
Although meltdowns may seem like they happen out of nowhere, there is a clear pattern that happens before, after, and during a meltdown. This is the escalation cycle.Familiarising yourself with each of the stages and different strategies for each stage will help you respond to meltdowns and can help prevent them from happening altogether.
Ideally, aim to prevent escalating behavior. The success rate of prevention is far greater than that of de-escalation. However, sometimes it’s unavoidable so it’s important to have some de-escalation techniques too.
Although some of these techniques may seem more like “what not to do”, in truth sometimes our own responses do nothing but make situations more volatile.
Do not try to reason with them
When your child is having a meltdown, the logical part of their brain isn’t working. During a meltdown, the fight-or-flight instinct takes over, the brain is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, so they literally cannot access the part of their brain that thinks logically.
It may be tempting to try to reason with your child but often that will make them angrier.
Once your child has actually calmed down, they may respond to some kind of reasoning, but mid-meltdown it won’t help.
Avoid making demands
Sometimes too many demands can actually cause the meltdown in the first place. But regardless of the cause, avoiding making more demands. Telling your child repeatedly to “stop” or “calm down” or “snap out of it” isn’t going to make them stop or calm down. It doesn’t matter how nicely you ask.
Do not shout to be heard over your child
Shouting makes you appear threatening and will not help de-escalate a meltdown. If your child is screaming do not try shouting over them so they can hear you. Wait until they stop and then speak to them calmly and empathetically.
Validate their feelings, but not their actions
Everybody has the right to feel a certain way about any given situation. Giving validation to their feelings shows your child that you accept their thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This shows your child that you’re on their side.
Say things like “I understand you’re angry and that’s okay, but it’s not okay to hit others” Or, “If that happened to me, I would be upset, too”
Respect personal space
Everyone’s personal “bubble” is different, but regardless that bubble gets bigger with heightened emotions. Keep back at least a meter from your child. Don’t try to touch them, hug them, or pick them up (unless they’re in danger).
Be aware of your body language and facial expressions
It’s important to appear calm and non-threatening throughout your child’s meltdown. The best way to do this is by being mindful of your body language and facial expressions.
Keep your facial expression neutral and check yourself to make sure you aren’t frowning, burrowing your brow, or clenching your jaw.
Other things to avoid are crossing your arms or put your hands on your hips, pacing, pointing your finger or other large hand gestures. It’s best to keep your hands in front of your body in a relaxed position.
Get on your child’s level
Don’t stand over them, looking down at them as you talk as this can be intimidating. If your child will sit, sit with them. If not, kneel so you’re at eye level with them when communicating.
This de-escalation technique works best if it’s used early. Try distracting your child from the current situation by offering them a favorite toy, a preferred activity, or even showing them a funny video you think they would like.
This technique doesn’t mean your child “gets away with” the behavior. Once they’re calm and more likely to respond with reason and logic you can address the issue.
Reflect on your child’s wants and needs
Reflection shows you are listening to their concerns, however poorly they are being communicated. Try saying things like “So you are saying you are upset because you really wanted to wear your wellies today?” or ” You don’t want a sandwich for lunch, is that right?”
If you’re lucky enough to get a moment where your child says “YES!” to your reflection, it opens an opportunity for you to then validate your child’s feelings and help them calm down.
Acknowledge your child’s right for refusal
Children can suddenly become a lot more likely to cooperate when they don’t feel like they are being “forced” to do something. Acknowledge this right by saying “You’re right, I can’t make you do …….” then explain why you would like them to choose to do what is asked, and provide a logical consequence.
For example, “You’re right, I can’t make you put on your wellies. But we can’t play outside until they are on. The choice is yours.”
Answer their questions but ignore targeted aggression
If your child asks a question during a meltdown, even if it’s asked inappropriately or rudely, provide a calm and concise answer.
However, ignore any aggressive statements they make towards you. For example, if your child yells “You’re the worst mum in the world!”, do not respond or react.
Sometimes total silence can help your child begin calming down and then seeing things more reasonably. Stop talking altogether to both your child, and anyone else around you.
Offer a movement break or a walk
Getting moving is proven to reduce stress, help you calm down, and increase serotonin; the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. Ask your child if they want to go for a quick walk or have a movement break.
Regardless of the situation at hand, being judgemental during a meltdown will only make things worse. Avoid things like using sarcasm, dismissing your child’s feelings, blaming them, treating them as unintelligent. Also avoid lecturing or trying to solve their problems for them in the moment.
This is a big one. Regardless of the cause of the meltdown, additional stimulation can contribute to more overload. Minimise this stimulation by dimming lights, turning the TV down or off, having other people leave the room, or whatever you need to do to reduce the sensory environment.
Avoid saying “no”
If your child is asking you questions avoid saying the word “no” because it can instantly make things worse. Try offering more open ended answers like “we can plan a time to do that.”
Use calming visual input
Certain visual input can be mesmerizing and help children calm down. An LED light projector, a lava lamp or visually soothing videos can help.
Deep breathing exercises
The reality is, unless these skills are taught to your child when they’re calm, they highly unlikely to work when they’re upset. It takes a lot of practise and pre-teaching for your child to be able to self-regulate with deep breathing exercises. However, the work can pay off as controlling and focusing on the breath is a hugely effective way of regulating emotion.
Eventually, with frequent practice while calm, you will be able to prompt your child to do deep breathing exercises when they are upset, or to model that breathing and have them imitate you. If you can get your child to use this de-escalation technique in the moment, it works quite quickly.
All of these strategies won’t work on all children, and the ones that do work probably won’t work every time. But having a variety of de-escalation techniques to try is useful for parents who regularly encounter meltdowns. As you try out these methods and learn how your child responds, you will find the best techniques for you.