We’ve all been there. That moment when the situation goes from bad to worse. It’s usually in public, or at a playgroup where you worry about judgy moms. Right? But what if you could use parenting de-escalation strategies the next time your child loses it? Using de-escalation strategies is not just to save face as a parent (though that’s nice). It’s a true act of compassion for your child, too. Here’s how to get started.
What is de-escalation, anyway? It’s the tool you use to break the escalation cycle. Meltdowns don’t just happen out of nowhere (though it seems like they do, sometimes). In reality, there must be a 1. trigger, followed by 2. agitation, 3. acceleration, and finally, 4. a peak. This is the escalation cycle. De-escalation can be utilized to bring the child down from that peak, or better yet, even before you and your child get to that point.
Top parenting de-escalation strategies to utilize with your child:
Don’t try to reason with your child. Instead, validate their feelings. Reasoning simply won’t work once the escalation cycle is already in progress. Even when you think that offering a reason will diffuse the situation (you can’t have the yellow cup today because it’s in the dishwasher), it actually may add fuel to your child’s feeling of helplessness over the situation. Remember, you can validate your child’s feelings of helplessness or frustration WITHOUT validating their actions.
Avoid generalized commands, such as ‘No!’, ‘Stop it right now!’ or ‘Snap out of it’. Yes, you’re frustrated and desperate, but let’s face it: you already know this won’t work. Instead, get on your child’s level so they can see you as an ally instead of another obstacle. This is not the time to ask more of them.
Do not yell. Even if you think you need to raise your voice to be heard over your child’s wails, trust me, they won’t hear you. Instead, wait them out, staying quiet and calm. Your child needs someone to be the tranquil one, and that someone needs to be you.
Respect personal space. Your child needs to feel safe right now, and as much in control over her own body and mind as possible. Do not touch or pick up your child (unless they are physically unsafe) and don’t try to hug or otherwise comfort your child physically while he’s in the midst of his meltdown.
Be aware of your body language and facial expressions. This is the time to stay neutral. YOU are the one in control. You are the one who is calm in the midst of this storm. Your child needs to see this. Avoid looking horrified or crying or acting upset. Don’t cross your arms over your chest or otherwise imply disapproval or anger. Stay on your child’s level and stay relaxed (as much as possible…we’re all human!).
Use distraction. Granted, this technique works best when deployed toward the beginning of the escalation cycle, but can sometimes still work even later on. Distract your child with a change of environment (let’s go calm down in this quiet corner) or with a favorite toy or treat. Distraction does NOT mean your child ‘gets away with the behavior’. Once he is calm, you will return to the original issue and address it.
Practice reflective listening (active listening). This means mirroring and echoing your child. ‘I hear you saying you think it’s your turn with the doll’, or ‘You don’t want me to drop you off at the front of the school, is that right?’ This is another way to validate your child’s feelings. When she feels heard, it can help her calm down.