EPIC Blog: How to De-escalate Meltdowns - 4KIDS
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EPIC Blog: How to De-escalate Meltdowns

June 5th, 2020 l Author: Mariana Caro, LCSW

One of the most common questions that I receive from families is “How do we stop the meltdowns? How do we deescalate a chaotic situation?” In order to answer that, we first have to understand what’s happening in the brain during a meltdown.

One of my favorite tools for understanding the brain is Dr. Daniel Siegel’s “Hand Model of the Brain.” Close your hand into a fist, and pretend that it is your brain.

  • One part of your fist is the lower brain, the Brain Stem
    • This part is responsible for the most primitive functions of the body, including balance, regulation, and survival – fight, flight, or freeze
  • Next is the Limbic Region
    • This part has structures that are responsible for big emotions, memory, and feeling safe. The amygdala, or the “watchdog” of the brain, is in this region, and it plays a vital role in letting a person know if they are safe or if they need to activate the fight/flight/or freeze system
  • The last part is the Cerebral Cortex
    • This is responsible for executive functioning, logic, reasoning, impulse control, language
    • This is the part of the brain that, when accessible, helps regulate these lower parts in the face of a stressful situation

When a child gets dysregulated, the Brain Stem and Limbic Region take over, and the Celebral Cortex— the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning, logic, and language— is no longer running the show. So, how do you deescalate a breakdown?

  • Speak to the lower parts of their brain first. Communicate safety with your tone of voice, with your body language. Speak calmly, name the feelings that are coming up, help their bodies to regulate with a snack or some water.
  • This is not the time to try to reason, teach a lesson, or talk them out of the problem. This is the time to connect and help their brain work together again.
  • This not only helps us understand what to do in a time of crisis, but it can also be used as a proactive tool that can let us know when we need to do something to help our brains and bodies stay calm. Remember, we all have brains which means we all flip our lids sometimes! This is not just for the kids.
  • We can model the use of this tool by saying things like “I’m noticing I’m about to flip my lid – I need to take a deep breath before I keep talking” or “I need to take a walk to help my brain stay calm.”

Remember, when you or your child have flipped your lids, focus on communicating safety and giving the body what it needs to stay calm. Trust me, you want all parts of the brain accessible to you if you want you or your child to be ready to learn and grow together.