How To De-Escalate Meltdowns

by | Mar 1, 2021

I’ve spoken about De-escalation in the past in other articles, posts across social media and within my podcasts, but in this article I’m taking you the process that we can go through and use when things are escalating at home.

Sarah P Fisher Coaching Parents & Carers

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De-escalation isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. However, this overview will help you to understand it and allow you to adapt it to suit your own child’s needs, because like anything, no two children are the same.

This framework works in all situations, whether that’s between adult and child, adult and adult – whatever the situation, it works – you just need to adapt it to meet the needs of what’s happening right now. This is why taking some time to think through your situation as it’s happening is really important. (if you need some help with that, please don’t hesitate to jump in to my FREE Facebook Group, called Connective Parenting Using NVR).

As always, when I’m talking about this, we need to look at the different types of escalation FIRST, because if we don’t understand those, understanding what de-escalation looks like can be a bit harder.

Sarah P Fisher Coaching Parents & Carers

Symmetrical Escalation

For example your child starts getting wound up and pushing a few buttons. You join in and start getting wound up too. Voices are getting raised, and eventually you end up both shouting, the argument ends up angry and/or aggressive and often when you reach this point, you can’t even remember what you were arguing about to begin with, but you both keep going until one of you explodes.


Giving In Escalation

This is where we’re backing down, or giving in when our child pushes our buttons. It might be that we’re giving in because we’re fearful of their response, it might be because we tired, not feeling well or don’t have the energy needed to stand our ground that day.


I’ll be honest, I’ve done both. 

And I expect many of you reading this will have too. These are really common.

In some households you’ll find one parent always symmetrically escalates with their child, and the other parent always gives in, and the child learns which parent to go to depending on the response they’re looking for or need. 

There’s no judgment in either of these situations, no right or wrong. It’s human nature. But once we’re aware of how we’re responding, we can start thinking about how we can change it.

When we are thinking about de-escalation, that’s the middle ground between escalating with them and giving in.

It’s really important to say here that giving in through active choice is very different than giving in through fear or exhaustion. When we give in through active choice ie “yes it’s absolutely fine for you to have another chocolate biscuit for breakfast”, our body language, our whole demeaner, the message we’re giving across is very different to when we’re giving in out of fear or exhaustion.  Giving in through active choice is not a problem, don’t worry about doing that. You don’t want to be giving in all the time, but doing it out of choice is absolutely fine. Giving in through fear or exhaustion is the one we need to change.

De-escalation is where you are taking control of the situation as an adult in a very calm and resolute manner.

You are focusing in that moment on keeping everyone safe and on your own self-regulation. You’re not trying to understand what’s happening. You’re not trying to reason or rationalise with them. You’re not trying to get them to tell you what’s going on. Because it’s not going to work.

When we are escalating, we’re going in to fight or flight mode, which is the reptilian part of your brain taking control. It’s your survival mode. It’s our “Do I need to run away from this bear that’s coming to attack me or do I need to freeze and hope they don’t see me”.  In that situation our rational thinking brain is offline.

So when we are constantly asking our child, “come on, tell me what’s wrong, what’s going on?” they can’t answer that. As a parent that can make us more frustrated when we’re not receiving the answers we need. And as we get more frustrated, they get more frustrated, and it just goes back and forth until the situation has escalated out of control.

All we want to be doing in that moment (and I’m saying this whilst knowing how hard it is) is to minimise the risks and the arousal level of everyone and keep everyone safe.

We’re going to raise our presence in that moment by doing that, and we’re going to take action later, not in the moment. When we take action later, we then start to see the changes happen.

To raise our presence, we want to be saying to the child “I’m here, it’s ok, I can help you with the emotions you’re feeling right now.”

When we do that, we’re showing them that we are there for them. We’re showing them that we can see that they are struggling in that moment, and that we are strong enough to contain them and support them with that. I often talk about our presence being our harbour walls around our children. When we are de-escalating we are putting our harbour walls up around them and saying “it’s ok, I’ve got you, it’s safe, we can do this,“ and then we are helping them to de-escalate.

It’s not easy to do and I know as a parent that it’s something that becomes easier over time. One thing that is critical for me is that if we’re not looking after ourselves, de-escalation is really difficult.

When we are tired or stressed, or not feeling great – it is so much harder to stay calm in the moment and you are much more likely to escalate with them or just give in because you haven’t got the capacity to handle it in that moment. That’s one of the reasons why I talk about the importance of self care all of the time, because it makes de-escalation so much easier.  It is vital to the role of de-escalation.

If a child is escalating, we want to be doing as little as possible to add fuel to the fire. If you tell your child to calm down or sort themselves out, it’s highly unlikely that it will work.  How many times has someone told you to calm down and you’ve actually then calmed down?

We need to show the child what to do. Simply telling them to calm down won’t work. 

Here are some sensory options you can try when you are regulating your child and co-regulating with them:

Big deep breaths – exaggerate these if you need to, to demonstrate to your child.

Star jumps or running on the spot – doing something physical works really well.

Take a drink from a sports bottle (the sucking action is really calming) or eat something chewy or crunchy.

Play with putty/slime/sand.

Physical touch works well too – a hug or a massage your hands. If your child will let you massage their hands or feet it can be a fantastic way of calming everyone down. All of these things can work really well but what I would say is don’t just walk up to them and give them a big bear hug in the middle of an escalating situation.  You should ask them first, this puts them in control and allows them to give you consent and results in a far more positive response than just hugging them out of no where.

The other way of regulating is to say as little as possible. For some children this is very effective and for others it can make them really cross.  It’s really important to not just go quiet, because if you just stop talking that’s just weird.  You can say something like “I’m not going to talk to you much but I’m here for you if you need me”. 

As far as possible, stay with the child, they need that connection in the moment, those feelings they’ve got are showing you that they’re worried, scared, angry, upset, fearful, lonely, frightened or nervous… Those feelings are displaying as anger, so it’s really important that we stay with them and stay connected so that they’re getting the connection they need to help them to feel safe and ultimately can start regulating again.

If we choose to disconnect from them that could increase those feelings of lack of safety. Obviously there are always reasons why you may need to leave them. If it is unsafe for you to remain with them you may need to leave. I have had parents say to me that leaving their child and shutting the door makes their child worse and it’s more dangerous for them to do that. You need to think about what is safer for you and for them. Safety is the prime concern here.

What you will find sometimes is that when you start to deescalate in this way your child will begin to push harder for a reaction. This is because the child has been used to a particular response so they will do everything they can to get you to respond in the way that they are expecting. It’s really important for them because they want that sense of safety in knowing what’s going to happen.

When you respond differently it can be quite unnerving for them – they want everything to be how they were expecting it to be. Be aware that they will push your buttons a little bit more when you start to de-escalate – it’s really common so just keep going with it, keep showing them that they’re safe, it will get easier.


The Deferred Conversation

It could take a few hours depending on what’s going on, but once they have regulated themselves, then we talk about what’s happened. We have what is often called the “deferred conversation”.

This is where we sit down with them when the “iron is cold” (or at least as cool as possible, I appreciate in some households it never gets cold!), then we talk to them about what happened. It’s not a telling off conversation or a lecture. Children will know that if they were verbally or physically aggressive or behaving in a way that isn’t great, they know that. They don’t need us to tell them off or shout at them about it.  That’s not going to help.

What they need is for us to sit down, reconnect with them and be there to help them understand what happened, understand their emotions and think about how they can manage it differently  next time. 

When we do that and connect with them, over time we start to see change.

This fits in with the idea of consequences (read more about that here or listen here). This deferred conversation is really very valuable in terms of changing behaviours. It’s not a quick fix or a magic wand, but over time it absolutely will start changing behaviours because we are focused on helping the child understand themselves and manage their emotions, rather than the “I’m the adult, I’ve told you off, now go and sort yourself out” approach. 

We use these conversations carefully in a managed and calm way, to work at their pace to help them understand themselves.

If you’ve never had these conversations before, you can start off with “I could see you were upset earlier, I’m here if you want to talk.”

If you have quite a connective relationship with your child,  you know they understand their emotions and they’re quite good at talking to you, you can have a more in-depth conversation – “I could see you were upset earlier, do you want to talk about what was happening? I’m here to help, we can talk about ways to change the situation”.

The conversation really depends on your relationship with the child, their understanding of their own emotions and your connection with them.  So take it slowly, at their pace, because you don’t want to stop them from talking to you. You want them to feel comfortable talking about their emotions to you.

This is one of the most important and effective parts of NVR in terms of connecting with our children and moving our relationship forward.

I’ve had these conversations with my son for years now.  They don’t always have to be about an escalation situation, but they’re really powerful conversations.

If you’re new to this approach, start with de-escalating first and get used to that. If you’re using natural and logical consequences, things will start to change. Then you can bring in the deferred conversations when you’re ready to do it (but don’t put it off just because you’re too scared to do it, because I know that it is powerful and I know that you are capable of doing it).

So to sum up: you have Symmetrical Escalation where you both go up, and you have Giving In Escalation. You want to find that middle ground where you have that inner strength and belief in yourself that you can manage the situation. In that middle ground you’re giving off the energy for your child – “I’ve got this, we can do this, I’m here for you, we can get through this together.”

That’s de-escalation.

That’s creating connection.

That’s helping your child.


Over time, things will start to change.


Sarah P Fisher Coaching Parents & Carers

Do you work with parents who are constantly struggling with de-escalation?

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