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Each week we will be sharing a tip from our school psychologist, Mrs. Rollins.
This week we are talking about – De-escalating Intense Emotions We can’t prevent everything.
We can’t prevent everything. Our kids with intense feelings are going to have meltdowns, usually due to factors we can’t always control. This tip is focused on what to do when that happens.
When a student is experiencing intense emotions, trying to talk to them at all really doesn’t work. They will yell, “Stop it!”, “I hate you!”, try to hurt you or run away from you. They may still do this even when you do what I suggest, but when we respond consistently it stops.
Dr. Becky Kennedy’s book Good Inside and my own experience suggest the following:
Be a Sturdy Leader: all of us want someone to rely on in moments of stress. It’s common to negotiate, give in to demands or yell back to “stop the conflict”. But that teaches kids that their emotions are too much for others. Being calm and holding to boundaries lets them know their emotions are ok, which helps them believe in their own ability to regulate.
Curiosity over Blame: adults tend to blame themselves when kid’s meltdown. Instead, start to wonder about why your child is feeling this way or what they need. In that way you can find the function of behavior and look towards prevention in the future.
Containment: usually parents pick up their child to go to another room. The goal of containment is not to “win the fight”, but to stop dangerous behavior. Tell them what will happen, “I’m going to pick you up and carry you to your room. I will sit with you.” Schools have rules about physical interactions with children, so it is best to work with parents, review state laws and create a behavior plan for safe removal when it is necessary.
Be Present and Wait it Out: show your child that you are willing to be with them through their emotional storm and their feelings are not contagious. It’s also ok if you need a minute to step out and regulate yourself because intense emotions are hard for everyone. This is good modeling that they may choose to do in the future.
Convey Care through Validation: remind yourself and the child that they are a “good kid having a hard time”. Even if all you do is let them know that it’s reasonable to be upset even if you won’t let them continue any dangerous actions associated with being upset.
Re-establish Communication: it’s hard to talk when feeling intense emotions, so this is usually done in a nonverbal way. Dr. Becky likes using a thumbs up/down/to the side. She explains that she allows the child to continue hiding, but will ask how close she is at guessing reasons for their emotions. She starts with a silly guess to dissolve tension and then closer to the truth.
It’s hard to ride out strong emotions with kids, but trust and rapport builds when you do it. If you can see them at their worst and keep coming back to support them as school professionals or parents, it sends a strong message of care for their progress. It can also give you more understanding of how to prevent future meltdowns.
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