How to Deescalate a Child

How to Deescalate a Child (7 Steps)

Published On: March 8, 2024

Maybe your child is having a meltdown at the grocery store because they “have to have” an overpriced toy. Maybe your children are arguing over whose turn it is to pick a movie. Maybe your student struggles with transitioning to a special area class and winds up in a tantrum. I am sure these situations sound familiar because of how common emotional dysregulation is in childhood.

Engaging with an escalated, overwhelmed child can be both emotionally and mentally challenging for adults. Fortunately, there are ways to successfully deescalate these situations in a collaborative manner. Understanding these different approaches help caregivers to feel empowered and confident as they raise healthy, resilient children.

Strategies to Promote Regulation

Researchers, psychologists, and therapists have been collaborating for years on the best approaches when engaging with a dysregulated child. Pulling from this research, and personal experience as a mental health therapist, I’d like to share a few strategies to deescalate an overwhelmed child:

1. Validate Emotions

Although we may not agree with our child’s emotions and they may feel very out of proportion to the situation, it is important to validate how they are feeling. This helps the child to feel heard, seen, and understood as well as helping build their confidence. They will often continue escalating until they feel that the adult understands the severity of their anger, sadness, or frustration. You may validate emotions by saying, “I understand you are disappointed”, “I can see that this is hard for you”, or “I get it, I would be angry too.”

2. Steer Clear of Logic

When children are escalated, they are unable to think logically. When your child is throwing a tantrum, having a meltdown, or otherwise struggling emotionally, it is not the time to share a practical solution. This reinforces the belief that you do not understand how they are feeling, and they will continue to ramp up the distress until they feel that you understand. I often find that children are excellent problem solvers, and rarely benefit from someone telling them what to do. When your child is regulated, you may collaborate on brainstorming potential solutions, if needed.

3. Offer Choices

Some children struggle getting “stuck” in their escalation. One way to help them get out of the “stuckness” is by offering choices. These choices should not be an attempt to resolve the conflict – They should be an effort to help your child cope with their emotions effectively. For example, you may ask your child if they would like to go on a walk or play with their favorite toy. For older children, you may consider asking if they would like your help in calming down. 

4. Model Regulation

Parents and caregivers sometimes struggle with becoming escalated with their child. This is to be expected, as it can be very frustrating to try to support a child that is screaming, kicking, or being destructive. It is important that the adults in the situation are able to regulate their own emotions, as becoming escalated with the child will only prolong the distress. Adults may consider making their attempts at regulation very obvious to encourage the child to do the same. Some examples of this include taking audible deep breaths, verbalizing that you are trying to think of what to do, or saying that you are needing to take a break. 

5. Say Less

Children do best when phrases are 10 words or less. This is especially true when they are escalated. When adults go on tangents or rants, the child is unable to listen fully and you often lose their attention. To combat this, I encourage parents to utilize short statements that encapsulate your intention. This may take some practice if you typically lecture; However, it becomes more natural over time. It is also reinforced every time that you implement it effectively!

6. Get On Their Level and Talk Slow

Adults’ presence often feels intimidating to young children, as we are much taller and bigger than they are. Whenever you are engaging with an escalated kid, it is really important to get down on their level by sitting on the ground, kneeling, or squatting down. Adults yelling or using harsh language is also very intimidating to young children, and it activates a part in their brain that makes them feel unsafe. I encourage parents to use a gentle tone and speak words slowly. This helps slow their child’s heart rate, promote feelings of safety, and deescalate the situation. 

7. Give Space

Parents often share that their child will remove themselves from situations when they are escalated. This is really challenging for parents who have done lots of research on the best ways to deescalate their children, as they often worry that they are doing something wrong if they let their kid walk away. I believe it is very important to allow autonomy with children, and if they are walking away they are likely implementing a break from the discussion in order to regulate their emotions. I encourage parents to allow their child to remove themselves if it is safe to do so, and follow-up with them later regarding the discussion in order to repair the relationship. As your child walks away, you may say, “I’m here when you’re ready”, or “I’m ready to talk when you are.” This shows that you are there for them when they are ready to resume the discussion, and supports that you are not afraid of their big emotions.

Implementing New Skills

Children often struggle as they are learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. This is developmentally appropriate and to be expected. There are some useful ways to engage with an escalated child to promote deescalation, including allowing space, giving options, validating emotions, and managing your own emotions adequately.