De-escalating a Child: Staying Calm is the Key

Elise Spronk, MS, OTR/L

When my boys were younger, they decided it would be fun to share bedrooms. I think some of this was based on the feeling of comfort they would get being in the same room. My lifelong dream of having bunk beds was going to come true. I remember when Cooper climbed onto the top bunk and was becoming anxious because he was having trouble getting down. Many of us can picture times we’ve helped our child get safely down a ladder or out of a tree. It was much more effective to help from below than it would have been to climb up and help from above.

On Facebook I’ve recently seen the phrase “An escalated adult cannot help de-escalating a child”. I love this, and think it should stay in the forefront of our minds when helping our children find peace and calm. Shouting at them to calm down in very rarely effective.

As an occupational therapist who works with lots of kids. I often get asked how parents can help a child during a meltdown. Most OTs don’t have this unique knowledge or get this question asked of them unless they specialize in pediatrics. I often reference the Sensorimotor Planning Worksheet from “How Does Your Engine Run”, developed by Patricia Oetter. We know from science and studying the brain that providing something for our mouth is the very most calming thing that we can do because it is easy for our brains to process.

Think back to how we calmed our babies. Often nursing or a bottle, perhaps a pacifier, was very effective in getting them to calm down. The same is true as we age. Providing a water bottle or something to suck on can be a first line defense. Continue to think about how babies are calmed. We swaddle or provide them heavy touch through a hug. Sometimes we bounce, and we usually use a quiet, “shhhhhh” to lull them into a calmed state. Continuing to apply these basic principles is not only scientific, it is likely much more effective in de-escalating a child than matching them at their escalated level.

Obviously, it isn’t always this simple and sometimes kids and parents need extra support or help in these situations. I would encourage you to reach out to an occupational therapist trained in both reflex integration and sensory processing to assist you in discovering tools and strategies to use. And above all, stay grounded. Do what you need to do to remain calm. Take a deep breath. Hum your favorite calming song or hymn. Whisper. Stay down below and provide a hand of support to bring them back down.

Contact one of our occupational therapists with additional questions online or by calling 866-588-0230 today!