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De-Escalation Strategies:  Responding to Meltdowns & Tantrums

De-Escalation Strategies:  Responding to Meltdowns & Tantrums

Knowing what to do when your child or teen is having a difficult time managing their emotional responses and behavior is stressful and challenging.  Having a pocket full of tools is beneficial for you and for your child. It is always important to remember that there is a reason for the behavior and to try not to take what they say and do personally.  Typically your child is trying to avoid something, want control of a situation, want attention, want something, or are having difficulty managing their sensory system.

In my experience working as a school social worker and as a therapist, I found a number of strategies very helpful in de-escalating the situation.

  • Try to intervene early:

    • Be aware of the verbal and nonverbal warning signs (tearful, pacing, balled fists, fidgeting, shaking, clenched jaw, talking faster or in a higher pitch, grunting or making sounds).
  • Remain calm and take care of yourself:

    • Remember to take deep breaths: inhale deeply and then slowly exhale.
    • It is important to remain calm.  You cannot control everything that your child says and does but you have control over your own reactions.
  • Model the behavior and actions you want to see from your child.

    • Talk in a slow and calm voice.  Yelling may escalate the situation and can cause your child to get more upset.
    • Be aware of your verbal and nonverbal body language.  More than half of what we communicate is through our body language, facial expressions, and the tone of our voice.
    • Be aware of your facial expressions.  Try to be nonreactive and stoic.
    • Position your body in a non-threatening manner.  Try to avoid positioning your shoulders square in front of your child, provide your child with plenty of personal space, and attempt to get physically down to their same level.
    • Be aware and mindful of how you model your own feelings of anger or frustration.
  • Provide a distraction:

    • Change the subject, comment on something you know they are interested in, ask about their favorite book or show, start a conversation with another family member that may interest your child, or use humor if you know they respond to and understand it.
  • Decrease the number of people in the room and create a calm environment:

    • Minimize 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.
    • One person should talk to the child at a time.
    • Lower or turn off the volume of electronics and dim or turn off lights.
  • Label and validate their feelings and empathize with your child:

    • “It seems like you are feeling angry.”
    • Acknowledge that the situation is upsetting.
    • “I know that it is frustrating to stop playing the game to come to dinner.”
    • Let them know you are willing to help them with the problem once they are calm.
  • Redirect, provide choices, give prompts:

    • Lower your voice while you speak.
    • Tell your child what you want him/her to do, not what you don’t want him/her to do.
      • “Please talk to me using an inside voice.” Instead of “Stop yelling!”
      • “I want you to sit down” rather than “Stop jumping.”
    • Provide short directives.
    • Use ‘first/then language’.
      • “First pick up your toys and the then we can take a walk to the park.”
    •  Provide two choices and give plenty of time for your child to comply.  Repeat the choices and provide more time. This may take a while but it is worth the wait.
  • Wait it out and ignore:

    • Ignore behavior you do not approve of as long as it is not a safety issue.
    • Avoid eye contact or looking in your child’s direction.
    • Monitor the child from as far away as safely possible.
    • Find something to do to make you look busy.
  • Reinforce the positive and consequence at a later time:

    • Focus on the positive things that your child might be doing during the meltdown.
      • “I like that you are taking deep breaths to calm your body down. I am proud of you for using your words to express your feelings.  I like that you are now using a quiet voice.”
    •  You do not need to consequence behavior at the time it happens.  Discuss at a later time when everyone is calm.
    • Give yourself time to think of an appropriate consequence that you can live with and follow through on.
  • Return back to a normal routine:

    •  As soon as it is safe, return your child back to the normal routine of the day.


About the Author

Denise Gulotta, LCSW, is a therapist at our Edison Park location. Denise works with children, adolescents, and parents. Denise’s specialties include stress & anxiety, mood disorders, behavior problems, self-esteem, school issues, and family changes + life transitions. If you’re interested in working with Denise, send an email today!