Managing Tantrums and Escalations and Avoiding Power Struggles

When a child becomes escalated, we often feel like we need to fix or stop the escalation, but Neuroscience tells us that there is a point at which there is not much we can do but wait it out. When children's (and adults') heart rates goes above a certain point in an escalation, they secrete too much adrenaline and cortisol to be able to listen or think rationally.  So everything you say will actually go in one ear and out the other until our bodies calm down. Unfortunately, when a child is least likely to take intervention is typically when we are most upset and wanting to control their escalation. While it's tempting to engage in a power struggle, it will likely make things worse and damage the relationship. Here is a step by step guide on how to handle a child's escalation.

  1. Meet Your Child With Empathy Prior To The Escalation.  "It is so hard to stop doing what you're doing when you're so excited about it.  I bet you're furious that I am asking you to stop playing and come to dinner."
  2. Give Your Expectation And a Rationale.  "I'm asking you to put that on pause and come to have dinner.  Having dinner together is important to our family because it's the one time every day that we get to connect with each other.  It's important to you because you can be sure that you don't get hungry."
  3. If Escalation Happens Create Space-- DON'T POWER STRUGGLE.  "Okay, you're the only one who controls you.  I imagine that Dad and I will have some consequences for not following instructions."
  4. Disengage. 
    1. As long as your child is safe, allow them to have whatever feelings they are having, and behave in whatever way they are going to behave.  Now is not a time to try to control behavior or make threats of consequences.  It will only make things worse.
    2.  If they are unsafe, let them know what you'll need to do if they continue to be unsafe "I need to let you know that if you leave the property without permission, I will contact the police to keep you safe."
    3. If they are destroying property you will need to wait to solve that problem until later. Engaging is only going to make things worse-- I promise.
    4. Disengaging doesn't mean you aren't present or don't care.  Let them know you're ready when they are "I'm going to go into the living room and read a book, but you let me know when you're ready to talk."  This lets them know you are there for them and care about them, but you are not trying to control their feelings or actions.
  5. Wait Until They Make a Bid For Connection.  This is a great time to enjoy time with your other children, read a book you love, drink a cup of tea.  Remind yourself that there is nothing you can do and do something that may bring your adrenaline and cortisol levels down.  This serves two functions.  First, it makes you calm and second it sends the message that everything is okay and the tantrum doesn't control you.
  6. Return The Bid With Love and Connection.  Your child will inevitably make a bid for connection at some point when they are no longer escalated.  This may be the next day-- sometimes for teens it's next week.  It may look like "Mom, can you take me to my friend's house?" or "Dad, can we go out and get ice cream?"  This is not a time to emotionally punish.  Respond with "I'm so glad you're feeling okay enough to connect with me again." 
  7. Provide Empathy.  "Earlier when I asked you to come to dinner you were really angry.  I know how hard it is to get so excited about something and have someone try to cut you off from it."
  8. Ask for Empathy or Responsibility Taking.  "Can you imagine what may have been going on for me at that time?" or "What happened from your perspective and how could we have done it differently?"  Sometimes this can re-escalate the situation.  That's okay, just start again with step 1.  At some point, they will be able to have this part of the conversation.
  9. Brainstorm Consequences Together. "Okay, so next time I can let you know 30 minutes before dinner so that you're prepared and remind you at 5 minutes and you will ask me for your stress ball if you're feeling angry about that so that you can feel calmer about doing something you don't want to do.  While you were upset, you broke a picture frame and made it hard for the family to enjoy dinner.  How do you think you should fix that?  What consequences do you think are fair?"

If you are consistent with following these steps, you will see a decrease in frequency and intensity of escalations unless there are underlying emotional safety needs that are not being addressed.