After I published my last article about the importance of staying calm, I got many requests to write more on this topic.
Specifically, people have been asking for advice on how to stay calm, and what it looks like to stay calm when their children/students are upset. This is a big topic, and it is helpful to understand the basics of what is going on in the brain of a person who is experiencing intense emotions such as anxiety or anger.
As the emotions build, the child’s brain goes into a “fight-flight-or freeze” mode. Their brain assesses that the situation is creating upset, and it sends a message to the body to get ready to fight, flee, or freeze. The body then gets physiologically ready for one of those responses: breathing gets more shallow, muscles tense, heart rate increases, and the body readies to face what it perceives is a major threat. These physiological responses send signals to the brain that there is in fact something to be very upset about. This ongoing cycle causes the brain to shut down all processes it deems as unessential at that moment. One of the first parts of the brain to shut down is the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for higher-level rational thinking. When this happens, the person is not capable of processing higher-level language or logically processing information in general. This is why we have all had the experience of saying and doing things we don’t mean “in the heat of the moment.” It is not until our body starts to calm, and our brain perceives that the threat has passed, that our pre-frontal cortex comes back online and we are again capable of rational thinking. This is why it is essential that adults remain as calm and controlled as possible when a child is getting emotionally worked up. Our goal needs to be to help them perceive that the threat has passed so that their body and brain can return to a more calm and rational baseline more quickly.
With all that in mind, here are some do’s and don’ts to help you help your child come out of a state of upset more quickly:
Do stay as quiet as possible. Bring your volume down in response to the child’s rising volume.
Don’t yell or raise your voice in an effort to be heard by the child.
Staying quiet helps prevent overwhelm and allows the child to see that you are a calm and safe presence in that moment. When you raise your voice, you risk the child perceiving you as an increasing threat – which perpetuates their fight-flight-freeze response.
Do make calm simple statements acknowledging that the child is upset.
Don’t make demands or ask questions.
Using a lot of language during moments of overwhelm and upset only compounds the child’s processing difficulties. Keeping your language simple and supportive reduces the perception of threat, and helps restore calm more quickly. Remember that in these moments the child is not capable of processing and responding to higher level language, so asking questions and making demands is likely to increase their frustration and upset.
Do stay physically close to provide a boundary.
Don’t try to move the child or otherwise physically manage him/her unless there is a safety issue.
Staying physically close to the child, even holding their hand if needed, helps prevent running away or unsafe physical behavior. It is important that these situations do not turn into a free-for-all where adults are chasing the child while s/he goes wherever s/he wants. On the other hand, we do not want to physically force the child to do things or drag him/her somewhere. Such physical management is perceived as threatening and will continue the escalation. Ensure that the child is in a safe place where s/he cannot be hurt or hurt others. Stay physically close to ensure that the child doesn’t run away. Then calmly stand or sit by the child until she settles down.
Do keep your focus on allowing the child to return to a calm baseline.
Don’t try to rationalize, make a point, or teach a lesson. Don’t try to negotiate.
If the adult is focused on getting the child to recognize what s/he has done wrong, asking the child to make a different choice or negotiating with the child to stop the behavior, then the child will likely continue to perceive the situation as threatening. During these episodes, the focus needs to be on providing support for the child to return to a rational brain state. Trying to teach a lesson or negotiate for better behavior will generally backfire by fueling the escalation.
Do quietly and calmly tell/lead the child to whatever is happening next once s/he is calm.
Don’t try to discuss the situation immediately after the child calms down, attempt to make the child apologize, or try to get the child to agree that s/he acted inappropriately.
Once the child is calm it is important simply to move on to whatever is next. If the adult attempts immediately to discuss the situation, impose a punishment, or get an apology there is a high risk of sending the child right back into a dysregulated state. If there is discussion that needs to occur, it is best to do it well after the fact when the child has been in a calm state for a good period of time. Don’t pour salt in the wound by embarrassing the child or instilling guilt or shame about the behavior. Allow the child the dignity to successfully move on to whatever needs to happen next, which may include calmly helping to clean things up or put things back in order.
Do keep your mind in the present moment.
Don’t let your mind go far into the future to think about what your child’s behavior will be like and how you will manage it.
When adults allow their mind to focus on the negative in a situation, especially as this relates to never ending problems in the future, it becomes very difficult to remain calm. Staying calm is much easier for adults when we focus on the here-and-now, and not allow ourselves to conceive the entire day, week, year, or lifetime of the relationship into a never-ending catastrophe just because the child is upset in that moment. Staying focused on the goal of being a calm supportive presence in the moment will help the situation resolve more quickly.
Do keep your breathing slow, steady, and deep; and keep your muscles relaxed in order to help your brain stay in a calm and focused state.
Don’t allow your body to cause increased upset and anxiety by taking quick shallow breaths, or tensing up.
The mind tends to follow the body, which means that keeping the body calm helps keep the mind calm. Instead of letting your mind spin with upset, try focusing on your breathing. There are many different ways to breath in order to promote calm and relaxation, but a simple technique is to focus on breathing in for a slow count of 3 and then breathing out for a slow count of 3. It doesn’t so much matter how you do it, because just focusing on breathing at a more slow and steady rate will help you maintain calm. The same goes for muscle tension. Be aware of muscle tenseness, and aim to keep your muscles as relaxed as possible. This includes being especially aware of tension in the your facial muscles, as a tense face can make adults look more threatening to the child!
Any adult who has been faced with a dysregulated child can attest that staying calm is rarely an instinctual response. It can take practice for parents and professionals to stay calm when a child is escalating and upset. Hopefully you now have some ideas to support this process, and some practical tips to use the next time you face a challenging situation with your child or student. While it may take practice, learning to stay calm when a child is upset is well worth the effort.
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