When your child is extremely distressed, do they act in ways that are threatening or aggressive? In this episode, Dr. Coor explains aspects of the Low Arousal Approach that can help parents use non-confrontational strategies for managing your child's behavior during a meltdown.
Your child's meltdowns can be unsettling or even frightening. But using words like "violent" and "manipulative" can cause you to have a negative view of your child as willful and deliberate—maliciously in control of their actions. This in turn will affect how you handle these situations. Dr. Ross Greene reminds us that "kids do well if they can" even when they’re behaving in unfortunate ways.
These factors also influence how tolerant you might be in the face of them. In the book The Reflective Journey: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Low Arousal Approach, Dr. Andrew McDonnell suggests the neutral term "behaviors of concern," rather than a "tantrum" or a "fit."
"Distress behavior" is another way of conceptualizing these episodes—when someone is displaying a negative reaction to others, the environment, or to overstimulation, it’s usually because they are distressed.
If your child is neurodivergent, you may see meltdowns more often than you might in a neurotypical child. And yet neurotypical kids absolutely can have meltdowns! Managing the behavior of a child who is in the midst of a meltdown can be extremely distressing to you. Your child may be verbally or physically aggressive, self-injurious, or threatening when their nervous system is in survival mode. In these highly emotional and often scary situations, it helps to have some understanding of what happens when your child is highly distressed. You can also develop skills that can help you to de-escalate yourself and your child.
Your child may begin to show early signs of distress in subtle or easily visible ways that are unique to them.
Phases of escalation
When your child becomes extremely overwhelmed they may become explosive, seemingly out of nowhere. However, there is a predictable pattern that happens before, during, and following your child’s distress episodes. Within this pattern, you only have a small window of opportunity to intervene and potentially prevent further escalation.
The first phase is the trigger. Your child’s nervous system detects danger. Triggers might include fear, anxiety, frustration, sensory overload, confusion, sudden changes in routine, lack of autonomy, too many demands, fatigue, or illness.
Their frontal lobe—which controls your child’s ability to inhibit behaviors—starts to shut down. Your child may begin to show early signs of distress in subtle or easily visible ways that are unique to them. This could look like rocking, shouting, pacing, mood shifts, etc. Recognizing your child’s particular "stress signature" can help you intervene early. You still have a high probability of keeping the situation from escalating. Proactively redirect or distract your child, reduce or remove triggers, or remove your child from them. Validate your child’s thoughts and feelings and show that you’re on their side. Give them lots of physical space—at least 3 feet, unless they’re asking you to be closer, or they’re in danger.
Do whatever you can to divert or distract from a meltdown—even if it means providing an item that seems "rewarding."
The second phase is agitation/escalation. Your child’s limbic system—which tells their body to fight, flee, or freeze—begins to take over. There is an increase in negative behaviors like oppositionality, resistance, and withdrawal. It’s important to intervene during this phase—it’s your last opportunity to avoid full-blown crisis behavior.
When you know why the behaviors are occurring, you can act accordingly. Immediately moving to a less stimulating environment may be helpful. Giving your child a choice can give your child a sense of control over the situation. You might even use playfulness and humor to divert a meltdown. Offer a walk or a movement break. Instead of saying “no” to demands or requests, which can escalate things, try open-ended answers like, “We can think about that together when it’s calmer.” In general, however, speak very little—it’s difficult for them to process language right now.
If you are unable to divert the escalation, your child will accelerate into peak crisis: your child’s limbic system shuts down their hearing and peripheral vision, and everything they do now will be involuntary reactive survival behaviors. Your child has now lost control of themselves and may be screaming or behaving in aggressive ways. The meltdown needs to run its course at this point.
Maintaining safety is your top priority now. Remove items that could be dangerous, and remove other people from the room if you can. Give your child some physical space—only touch them if they are in a dangerous place. Try not to talk, which can make things worse. Use non-verbal gestures or your body to communicate, like holding up an item of comfort or interest or opening the door and walking outside to indicate that your child can follow you.
Do whatever you can to divert or distract from a meltdown, even if it means providing an item that seems "rewarding." This is not "giving in," it’s managing a crisis. Remove visual and auditory stimulation if you can by turning off items & lowering lights—even removing the stimulation of the sight of yourself from the situation if it’s safe to do so. Forced isolation, like confining someone to a bedroom should never be used—this actually increases arousal and can escalate the meltdown. However, allowing your child to go to a safe and quiet space may be helpful.
Pay attention to your non-verbal communication. Appear calm, do not loom above your child, avoid making direct eye contact for more than a second or two, slow your breathing, let your arms hang by your sides with your hands open and relaxed. Move slowly and predictably and avoid touching your child without asking while they are in this state. You might ask if they want a hug, or let them know that you’re going to sit near them and wait for an indication that this is okay with them before doing so. If a supporting adult is nearby, have them stay out of your child’s line of sight and stay quiet. And, although it may be upsetting, when a child destroys property, hurts themselves, or is verbally abusive, it can actually be an attempt to regulate themselves and avoid hurting people they love.
Finally, your child’s arousal decelerates into recovery. Their behavior becomes less and less severe as they wind down. This may take several hours as your child might need a lot of time to calm down. They may feel depleted and drained. Try to get back on track with a clean slate of what was happening before the trigger.
Though you may want to comfort your child, it’s important to manage your expectations and offer this only when they are ready. You know your child best and what their indicators of calm are. Once they are truly calm, initiate repair of this rupture in your relationship. Acknowledge what happened and collaborate on how to "move on" together.
During times of real calm and connection, your child can follow directions, tune out distractions, collaborate, and accept feedback. Capitalize on this "no problem" time by teaching calming techniques and coping strategies, all of which help to prevent behaviors of concern.
The more they practice while calm, the more you’ll be able to cue your child to use them mid-meltdown without using too much language, which can be overstimulating during moments of distress. Work on identifying your child’s particular sensory needs and what is calming for them. Make sure your child knows what to expect in terms of schedules and routines. You can even collaborate with your child on a hand signal or other gesture that can let you know that they are feeling escalation and need some help. Let your child tell you what they find helpful when they are very distressed.
For the next 30-90 days, try using these arousal-reducing strategies when your child becomes overwhelmed to the point of meltdown. Were you able to prevent a crisis? Were you able to resist pouring more fuel on the fire with your own behaviors? Were you able to repair with your child afterward and make a plan for preventing escalation in the future? Let me know how it goes!
Parenting a child who is often in a state of escalation can cause ongoing stress for you, too.
Remember that de-escalation strategies are for short-term management of crisis situations where your child is displaying behaviors of concern. Long-term change happens with practice, and when your child is calm and feeling connected to you. In the heat of the moment is not the time to teach your child more acceptable behaviors. Also keep in mind that parenting a child who is often in a state of escalation can cause ongoing stress for you, too. It’s important that you have support set up in your life so that you are able to offload your own big feelings. This will not only protect you and your physical health from toxic stress, but you will also be less likely to take out your stress on your child.