Identifying and Preventing Escalating Behaviors in Children (Part 2)

Identifying and Preventing Escalating Behaviors in Children

Please note that this is a continuation of the prior blog post titled: “Identifying and Preventing Escalating Behaviors in Children
In the first half of this blog post, we discussed ways to prevent an escalation of behavior and emotion in your child. However, due to the fact that no caregiver, child, or environment is perfect, there may be times when no amount of prevention or early intervention will be enough to stop an escalation in its tracks. This post will briefly review the final four stages of Colvin’s (2004) Escalation Cycle: 4) Acceleration, 5) Peak, 6) De-Escalation, and 7) Recovery.

Stage 4: Acceleration Stage

If a child’s agitation is not addressed (see the prior blog post), your child’s emotions may dramatically ramp up in what is called the Acceleration Stage. At this point, your child’s distress may become more noticeable as it increases and moves towards the peak. They may begin to act out verbally or behaviorally, displaying behavior that interferes with schoolwork, chores, or life tasks. Depending on the trigger and the responding emotions (such as if your child is responding to fear, anger, sadness, etc.), the acceleration may look different for each child. However, they often become more physically and verbally agitated, and their ability to reason and effectively problem-solve becomes compromised.

A caregiver can also check in with themselves during this time to identify this stage. When your child is accelerating in a crisis, it often feels to a caregiver as though they are also entering a crisis. One of the most crucial ways of de-escalation from this stage is to try and remain calm. Remaining calm when your child is in crisis can be awfully difficult, and it may benefit caregivers to tune into your own feelings and bodily sensations when acceleration is occurring. Learning simple breathing techniques or similar exercises can often help caregivers cope with their stress in the present moment (A wonderful example of breathing exercises for caregivers can be found here). Although difficult, remaining calm can be powerful as a tool to help you and your child as this calmness can often be a soothing presence on your child, and can effectively de-escalate the crisis.
In addition to remaining calm, a caregiver can help a child in this stage with a variety of other tools and techniques, including:

• Ask your child what happened. Show you are listening by reflecting back the words you are hearing without interrupting.
• Validate and empathize with your child’s feelings (Note, this does NOT mean you have to agree with them.) For example: “That must have been really frustrating for you.” Or “I understand that you are upset.”
• Ask them what they need in the moment or what you can do to support them. In some cases, children may innately know what they need.
• Offer them time and space to ‘cool off’
• If they aren’t able to respond, offer them simple, step-by-step suggestions that may help them in the moment. “We can come back to this later once you have calmed down. Why don’t we put the homework away and then do some drawing for a few minutes.”
• Avoid power struggles, punishment, or discussing immediate consequences of any emerging challenging behaviors. You can discuss the consequences once they have calmed down.

Stage 5: The Peak Stage

The peak stage is the time where your child’s emotions are at their highest. Likely they are unable to reasonably discuss the issues at hand, will not be able to problem solve, and their behaviors may not be fully under their control. In extreme cases, the behaviors may pose a risk to the child, the caregivers, or others. Similarly, in the acceleration stage, calmness is key. If caregivers lose their calm, then your child’s crisis may be prolonged or possibly even exacerbated. In addition to deep breathing, it may be helpful to:

• Use positive self-talk towards yourself (Show yourself compassion and kindness)
• Think of calming imagery or memories.
• Seek reassurance and validation from other family members or friends.

Many of the tools in Acceleration can also be useful here, however, your child will likely not be in a position to communicate what they need as easily. If this is the case, the caregiver is mainly tasked with ‘weathering’ this storm. They can offer support, validation, and offer simple ‘step-by-step’ instructions to help them de-escalate, however, these feelings may not abate until the feelings have dulled.

If, at this peak, the child’s behaviors are posing a risk to themselves or others, such as hurting themselves or others, mental health professionals may need to become involved immediately and you can seek support at your nearest emergency room or call various crisis lines. If you live in the New York City Area, you can call or text 988 in the event of a behavioral emergency with your child. If your child frequently enters a crisis to the point where they reach peak escalation, it may also be helpful to involve psychological and psychiatric providers to help develop a crisis plan for the event it happens in the future.

Stage 6: De-Escalation Stage

The good news is that every storm must come to an end. Although it may feel like an eternity, eventually, your child will calm down. When this de-escalation happens, your child might be confused, tired, guilty, or embarrassed. Some may want to discuss what happened and share their perspective, while others may want to not talk about it or blame others. Some may not even fully comprehend what happened if they are very young.

At this point, your child is likely to feel vulnerable. It is important to treat your child in these moments with respect and dignity, allowing them the time to de-escalate. It can be helpful to give them space immediately after so they have time to settle. Avoid giving them too many instructions or directions during this time, as that can easily cause them to ramp up again. It is also important to show that you still care for them and that even after they become upset, you are still there for them.

As the emotions are tamping down and you feel that both you and your child are in a decent space to discuss what happened, should you speak to your child about what exactly happened? This conversation should strive to accomplish 3 tasks:

• Understand the trigger. Get a better understanding of what caused this.
• Explore and better understand the child’s responses as well as the caregiver’s responses.
• Problem-solve for next steps. I.e. Where should we go from here?

Stage 7: Recovery Stage

As the dust has settled, it is important for caregivers and the child to debrief about what happened. It is important to not just let the escalation be forgotten, as not debriefing has been found to increase the risk of future escalations happening.
If any questions remain from the de-escalation stage as to what exactly happened, it is important for the caregiver to explore these details now. As a quick clarification, this is not an attempt to establish blame or who was right or wrong. This is a time to both gather information as well as to process lingering feelings. It may again be important, depending on the situation, to reinforce to your child that they are still loved.

The caregiver should also use this debriefing as a teachable moment, to go over with their child what worked and what didn’t work. If your child is old enough, it may be helpful to get their feedback on this as well, and ask them for recommendations on what both they, and their supporters, can reasonably do in the future if this trigger presents itself again.

This may also be the time to discuss the consequences of any behavior, if warranted. Remember, the best consequences are ones that are directly linked to the behavior, such as cleaning up the mess they made, apologizing to people they may have hurt, or similar activities. The reasoning also needs to be clearly communicated with the child. Consequences that are too far removed from the behavior, or consequences that remove sources of pleasure for the child for the sake of ‘punishing’ are not effective in the long run.

To summarize, a crisis occurs at several different stages, and each stage comes with its own opportunities to intervene. Although prevention is always the best policy, sometimes these escalations are unavoidable. When this happens, it can be helpful to know what techniques may be more helpful for your child, depending on what stage they are in. It is the hope of these two blogs posts that caregivers can use this information to better help themselves and their children in these difficult moments.

Colvin, G. (2004). Managing the cycle of acting-out behavior in the classroom.

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