every parent, teacher, babysitter and caregiver has been in this
situation: A child is agitated and acting out, often loudly. But,
according to behavioral experts at Bradley Hospital, what many adults
assume is simply a spoiled child who is acting out to get his way, may
really be a good kid, who is struggling to communicate in that moment.
With patience and a few targeted tactics, parents may be able to better
understand their children’s triggers, successfully de-escalate the
situation, and reduce the likelihood that it will occur again in the
“The first, and most important thing, to keep in mind is that when a
child throws himself on the floor screaming, he may be trying to tell us
something that he does not have words for or he is attempting to get his
needs met. It’s our job as the adults to try and figure out what the
unmet need is,” says Margaret
Paccione-Dyszlewski, PhD, director of the Department of Behavioral
Education at Bradley Hospital
Walter Heisler, BS, a behavioral education development specialist from
Bradley Hospital adds, “Kids act out because it’s a form of
communication that works for them. Often, they don’t want to do the
wrong thing, but they just don’t know the right thing to do.”
Paccione-Dyszlewski and Heisler say that all behavior usually happens
for one of three reasons:
The child wants something
The child is trying to avoid something
The child is trying to meet a sensory need, such as avoiding a
noise or being touched.
“The key to managing many difficult child behaviors is to limit the
number of emergency interventions and to maximize the number of
proactive interventions,” says Heisler. “In other words, try to
intervene at the earliest signs of agitation, before things escalate
into a full-blown meltdown .” Often, the first sign of a looming
issue is a change or increase in a child’s normal behavior.
So, what happens if a child has escalated and is already in the
middle of a meltdown?
“We have all either seen or have been that parent at the grocery store
with the screaming, crying child, and it can be maddening - a real
helpless feeling” says Paccione-Dyszlewski. “The good news is that there
are many strategies parents and caregivers can try to help agitated
children de-escalate and become calmer.”
Paccione-Dyszlewski and Heisler offer the following strategies for
Decrease stimulation. Lower the volume on the
television or stereo, dim bright lights, minimize
commotion/distractions. If possible, ask the child’s
siblings and friends to leave the immediate area for a
few minutes. Try to dial down the excitement and
Validate feelings. Acknowledge that the situation
is upsetting to your child. Displaying empathy and
understanding reinforces to him that you are there to
Encourage verbalization/offer help. Ask the child
to talk to you about what is upsetting him so that you
can better understand how you can help him. If this
conversation cannot happen in the moment, try to set a
time for it to happen at a later, calmer time.
Reinforce the positive. Focus on the positive
things that your child might be doing, such as making
eye contact or using words to express his anger.
Even if your child is yelling or using foul language,
now is not the best time to address it.
Redirect, exchange, prompt. Tell your child what
you want him to do, not what you want him to stop
doing. For example, “Please talk to me using an
inside voice.” versus “Stop yelling!” You may want to
lower your voice to a whisper as you redirect.
Switch-off. If they are available, ask the child
if he thinks that he will calm down more easily if
another care giver tries to help and you step away for a
while. The goal here is to step the difficult behaviors
down one notch. Once the crisis is settling, you can
return and have a more productive conversation at a
Withhold attention/wait. When all else fails,
wait it out. Monitor the child from as far away as
safely possible. Let him know that you will be
happy to talk with him as soon as he calms down and then
make it appear as if you have other things to do.
Don’t rush the process- If you act as if you have
all day, the situation is more likely to be better in a
few minutes. If you act as if you only have a few
minutes, it may just take all day.
“The reaction of the caregiver, both verbally and with body language,
can be one of the most important factors in de-escalation,” says
Heisler. “For most interventions to be successful, the adult must remain
calm, even though the child is not. We can’t control everything that
children say and do, but what we do have control over is our own
Rather than engaging in a no win power struggle with the child, Heisler
recommends staying calm and looking for opportunities to praise
appropriate behavior. “If the child sees you as a ‘threat,’ they will
likely become more agitated or scared,” says Heisler. As soon as the
child begins to calm down, it is usually best to return him back to the
normal structure of his routine as soon as it is safe to do so.
Paccione-Dyszlewski offers some final words of encouragement for parents
and caregivers. “Remember that de-escalation is a gradual process of
trying one small intervention after another, gauging the child’s
reaction and then figuring out what to try next. Unlike the zero to 60
mph manner in which the behavior went out of control, we can’t expect to
flip a switch and completely end a tantrum. As difficult as it may be,
try to stay out of the emotions of the moment and think of the
de-escalation process as a chess game. You can do it!” she says.