Staying Calm: A Therapeutic Approach to Crisis De-Escalation
Parent University is a monthly Zoom series during which we empower families with relevant, research-proven best practices for supporting their children at home and beyond. On February 23rd, Head of School and Lead Teacher Katerina Watson facilitated EPIC’s 6th Parent University of the Year, which focused on the topic of Crisis Management and Therapeutic De-escalation.
While we use a precise de-escalation protocol at EPIC, we don’t want you, as parents, guardians, and caregivers, to over-focus on protocol because the series of steps are not what’s most important. What really matters most is your ability as the de-escalator to stay calm in the situation because you will not be able to de-escalate a child if you too are escalated. Although this may seem obvious, in practice, it can be very challenging to do.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND CRISES
When we go into crisis, a fight or flight scenario, the cerebellum, or “thinking brain,” turns off and the limbic system, or “survival brain,” takes over. As a de-escalator, it is essential to remember that when the thinking brain is off, the child cannot hear you. Often, the adult will become escalated themselves when they attempt to talk a child out of their crisis. Therefore, the better we can remember that the child cannot scientifically hear us, the better prepared we can be to stay calm and help in these moments of crisis.
Almost immediately after the crisis, as adrenaline starts to pull out of the system, the “fawn response,” or the shame and guilt associated with the crisis, kicks in. At this time, it is common to hear self-deprecating speech, such as “I’m a monster” or “I’ll never be good at anything.” The fawn response informs us that right after a crisis is not the time to lay on more guilt about the crisis because the child may already be experiencing immense amounts of guilt and shame.
Also, as part of the fawn response, the child may appear very calm, ready to take your feedback, and be excessively apologetic for their actions. Although this may feel rewarding as an adult who de-escalated the situation, we must be incredibly intentional with our words and actions during the fawn response. If we drive home the guilt when the fawn response is activated, we begin to emotionally condition the child to feel excessive guilt and shame later in life even in situations during which they bear no responsibility.
By contributing to a child’s belief that they are “useless” or “a monster” or “horrible,” we contribute to rewiring their brain. Therefore, we must be careful in how we frame the aftermath of a crisis with children to avoid contributing to negative self beliefs and shame-based self criticism in the future. Often children who are emotionally conditioned in this way go on to find themselves in toxic situations and abusive relationships as adults because they have internalized a sense of worthlessness.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”
We have the opportunity to meet each child where they are, in order to help them build the skills to be confident, empowered and successful in life.
REFRAMING MALADAPTIVE BEHAVIORS
Often, when we witness a child’s behavior that we deem frustrating or illogical, it can be tempting to think things like, “My child is driving me insane!” or “Why is my child making such a bad choice?” However, what if we replaced those thoughts with, “My child is in pain.” At EPIC, we use the term “pain-based behaviors” as a substitute for “maladaptive behaviors.”
If a child fell off their bike and hurt themselves, our first instinct would be to de-escalate the situation before attempting to modify the behavior. We would bandage the wound, help them stop crying, and give them a hug before trying to stop them from falling off their bike the next time. This same framework can be used for a crisis situation. For instance, in the classroom, when an escalation occurs (e.g. a student makes a negative comment towards another student and it throws the room into conflict), it can be easy to think the next step should be a reprimand toward the child such as, “Why couldn’t you have just kept your mouth shut?” But children do well when they can, and in that moment the child did not have the necessary tools and skills to do well. In the earlier example, the child couldn’t ride their bike without falling, and this child could not keep themselves from speaking unkind words. Speaking unkind words was a pain-based behavior.
Whatever you have to do as the de-escalator to stay calm in the moment is what you need to do. Remembering that these maladaptive behaviors are a manifestation of pain can help. Again, it is essential to do all you can to remain calm because you cannot de-escalate the situation if you too are escalated.
STRATEGIES FROM EPIC PARENTS
At EPIC, all of our strategies related to crisis management and therapeutic de-escalation share one central tenet: Stay calm. Tactics such as remembering the science behind the thinking brain and framing maladaptive behaviors as pain can be hugely beneficial to preventing our own escalation in the moment. Additionally, during Parent University, EPIC parents collaborated and shared some of their go-to strategies for staying calm during the de-escalation process.