How to De-escalate a Meltdown
As you learn about the effects that trauma has on the brain, it's easier to understand why children may develop difficult behaviors, including meltdowns. Knowing what to do during these times is essential to helping you keep your cool, and helping children develop the proper tools necessary for handling these stressful situations.
We’ve had days where meltdowns occurred every 30 minutes with our foster daughter. She would just settle down from one episode, and another would begin shortly after. Those days were exhausting, but they would have been unbearable if we didn’t know how to handle what was happening. Building trust, felt safety, identifying triggers and teaching your child healthy coping skills will allow a decrease in these behaviors over time. Until then, these behaviors can feel overwhelming, and learning what to do is essential!
The Four Stages
There are four stages that occur during a meltdown - trigger, escalation, eruption and recovery. It’s important to understand what each stage looks like, and how you can intervene. Below, we’ll review each stage and offer some techniques that can be useful in helping you de-escalate a meltdown.
The Triggering Stage—When a stressful event occurs and sets the child into a state of crisis, our first goal is to try to help the child remain in control of their behavior. Usually, at this stage, the child can still think and respond to you rationally.
- Stop what you’re doing and give full attention to your child
- Don’t take it personally, even if it’s about you, show empathy
- Stay calm in your tone and body language
- Get in close proximity and kneel down below or at their eye level.
- Gently touch their hand, shoulder or chin.
- Use active listening and questions (avoid why questions) to repeat back what you hear and acknowledge the underlying feelings.
- Set limits and redirect by giving clear and specific choices
- Allow child to go to cool down spot. Time away can be helpful for some children who are being triggered by something in the immediate environment.
- Use conflict resolution to allow them to participate in creating a solution to their stressors.
The Escalation Stage—At this stage the goal is de-escalation and safety. The more the child experiences emotional overload, the less they can listen to actual words. So, nonverbal communication becomes very important.
- Remain calm and offer non-threatening body language
- Minimize distraction-TV, music, other people
- Give the child their personal space, but remain near
- Ask the child to sit down with you
- Use touch cautiously
- Allow the child to vent
- Ignore power struggles and challenging questions
- Use redirection away from a problem area or interaction
- Provide choices: “Do you want to talk about this here or on the porch?”
- Use if-then statements: “If you take some deep breaths, then you will feel better.”
- Remind the child that time away can help them regain self-control.
The Eruption Stage—When the child is totally overwhelmed by strong emotions, the result is usually an uncontrollable emotional and physical eruption. Coping skills have failed and they are no longer in control of their behavior. Safety for the child, and any other people in proximity, is the priority.
- Separate the child from others
- Remove all objects from the crisis area
- The less you say during this stage the better, keep it short “Stop and Breathe”
- Ask another adult for assistance
- If you feel unsafe, leave the area
The Recovery Stage—This is the period between eruption and “getting back to normal”.
- A second flare up can occur easily during this stage.
- Allow adequate time and space for recovery to occur before discussing what happened.
- Never shame your child.
- Try to encourage them with what they did well, and always be supportive and understanding.
In order for a better outcome next time, you must focus on building trust and felt safety with your child. It’s important to be actively listening, empathetic, offer conflict resolution and coping skills, and allow the child to practice these during non-crisis times.
In Real Life
Here’s an example of how this looks in real life… My foster daughter asks, “Mom, may I have a banana?” “Sure” I say, and grab a banana out of the fruit bowl, peel the top back and hand it to her. This action triggers an immediate meltdown. At this point she throws the banana, starts crying and slumps down on the ground. I slowly get down on the ground next to her and say her name, “Sue.” I pause for a second and say, “Let me see your eyes.” I gently but firmly touch her hand in an attempt to get her to focus on me and say, “Stop and breathe.” I give her a second to calm down, and then I say, “Use your words. Tell me what you need.” She doesn’t say anything and covers her eyes with her hands. I use empathy, “I see that you’re angry with mommy, and are feeling sad that you didn’t get to peel the banana.” My daughter nods in agreement, but her facial expression appears mad, and she is resistant to me touching her. I set the limit and offer her two choices, “It’s not ok to waste food. You have two choices. You can eat the banana now or another time when you’re feeling a little better.” She continues to look away so I say; “It looks like you’ve made the choice to eat the banana later. Let’s pick it up and put it away for later.” At this point she decides she is going to eat the banana now, so we go to the table and I ask, “Would you like to cut the banana yourself?” She nods yes and begins cutting the banana with a plastic knife, but after a few seconds gets upset again, and throws the banana and knife off the table.
She begins throwing objects nearby. I ask my husband to take the kids in another room, and I promptly remove all items in reach, and tell her, “Mommy’s going to keep everyone safe.” While removing the items she tries to kick and spit at me. I remain calm and keep my focus and attention on her. I tell her, “No hurts,” keeping commands short and simple. She begins screaming, pulling her hair and picking at her face. Now she is causing harm to herself, so I scoop her into my lap, gently hold her hands for a few minutes, tell her “Mommy is here; you’re safe,” and rock her until she settles down enough to stop the self-harming behaviors. Still unable to use her words at this point she pulls away, runs to her cool down spot and wraps herself up tightly in a blanket.
After 10 minutes of being wrapped up she has settled down and is ready to come to the table and eat her banana. I offer her a drink of water and give her a big hug. She’s still quite fragile at this point, and can easily go into another meltdown, so I keep things light by being playful and using humor. I put out her favorite activity, Play dough, and we play together. I offer a reassuring statement, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that sweetie, that must have been hard.”
After she has fully recovered we discuss how to prevent that stressor next time. I say to her, “I know you had a really hard time earlier. Next time, what can you do if you want to peel the banana yourself? How can you use your words?” We discussed using her words when asking for the banana by telling me that she wants to peel it herself. Role-playing can actually be very helpful for creating positive memory, especially for learning how to properly respond to stressful situations, so later in the day we walk through this by role-playing, which allows her to practice the new way of response. We also discuss how important safety is, and why throwing, kicking and spitting at people isn’t safe. We role-play what “no hurts” means, a phrase we use to remind her to use gentle touch and to not hurt herself or others. I also focus on what she did well, such as saying, “I’m so proud of you for going to your cool down spot. That really helped you to calm down. Good job!” It’s important not to shame them, and to make sure you are ending with a positive connection.
Understanding these stages better will help you guide your children in making more positive choices as they learn to respond to stressful situations. Knowing what to do will help you avoid unnecessary stress, and provide a great opportunity to strengthen and deepen your relationship with your child as you shower them with unconditional love.