Creative Child

De-escalation Strategies for Difficult Behavior

by Rebecca Eanes

We’ve all been there. Your child displays shocking or unwanted behavior. You automatically respond by yelling, scolding, or lecturing. Your child yells back, rolls her eyes, or storms off. Threats are thrown around, and the whole situation escalates very quickly and ends badly. Sound familiar? These are the kinds of patterns that are easy to get caught in. Our unconscious reactions usually fuel the same negative emotions that cause our children to act out in the first place, and we end up making matters worse. 


I want to share a few simple strategies that will help you de-escalate tension and get your child back on the right track fast. The goal, according to parenting expert and author,  Dr. Gordon Neufeld, is to get through such situations without doing any harm. Each time we allow the tension to escalate, we are doing harm by adding more negative emotions to fuel the flame. These 5 strategies will de-escalate anger and negativity and set you on the path to a positive solution.

  1. Pump the brakes. Practice taking a pause before you respond. It’s tough at first! But the more you practice, the easier it becomes. A pause as short as three seconds can dissipate your anger and help you respond with intention. I recommend anchoring this pause to some type of physical action which will cue your brain to calm down, such as closing your eyes, placing your hand over your heart, or touching the area between your eyebrows. This small but significant act will change the way you approach your child in those first crucial moments after a situation arises and will ultimately the determine the outcome. 
  2. Say as little as possible. When we are triggered or upset in some way, our words tend to not be very helpful or productive. Often, it’s best to get through the situation limiting what you say. The less words you use, the less chance there is to say the wrong thing. Save the lecture for when your child’s brain is calm and more responsive. You can always address it later when you have had time to think through exactly what you want to convey. It’s difficult to escalate a situation when you’re not talking much! Think “Do no harm.” 
  3. Show empathy. We are so often led to believe that we need to be stern, loud, and even harsh when we discipline our children or else they won’t take us seriously. We are warned that being “soft” will cause our kids to “run over us” or “go wild.” That’s unfortunate because nothing shows more strength and authority than empathy in the face of difficult behavior. When we are able to soften and provide empathy, we are displaying maturity and self-control, the very things we hope to teach our children to possess. By responding with empathy, you will soften your child’s heart as well, and the fight will go out of them, thus de-escalating the situation and calming their nervous system. Only when your child’s brain and nervous system has calmed down are they receptive to discipline anyway.
  4. Get on your child’s level. For my six-foot teenage son, that means I need a step stool, but generally you’ll want to get down to eye level with your child. When you are towering over them, you can seem menacing even if you’re being calm and kind. Your posture and tone matter when you’re trying to calm your child and de-escalate a problem. Our brains are hardwired to recognize threatening postures, so to avoid triggering a fear response in your child’s brain, come down to his level.
  5. Use positive communication. Speak respectfully, communicate clearly, and be assertive instead of aggressive. Assertive is a necessary skill while aggressiveness puts children on the defensive. Rather than aggressive phrases like “You make me so angry,” which lays blame and triggers defense, try assertive phrases such as, “I feel ______ when you ______.” Here, you take ownership for your own feelings while conveying your needs to your child. These small tweaks in communication have a big impact on your relationship.

I hope these five simple de-escalation strategies will help you reduce tension and arguments in your home and improve your communication and relationship with your child. Remember, each time you practice a new skill, you are creating a pathway in your brain that will make it easier the next time. Eventually, you’ll automatically pause and respond with empathy and intention.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 


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