Tips to De-Escalate Blow-Ups

We all at some point in our relationship with our children experience some form of blow-up. Whether it is in our attempt to discipline, give commands, or during conversations. 

During blow-ups, we feel we are losing control of the situation and our children, which may result in us attempting to be firm and persist to gain some semblance of control. 

We may even think that if we don’t control the interaction our children may become unruly, disrespectful, and out of control. In our attempt to control our children, we may, however, cause irreparable damage to our relationship with them. 

Photo courtesy: Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland
What happens in the brain during a blow-up?

Disciplining, problem-solving, or even attempting to have a logical discussion during blow-ups are ineffective because of what is occurring in our brain during these experiences. 

The brain is a complex organ that governs our thoughts, feelings, senses, and decision making. Each part of the brain has a specific function. For this article, we will only focus on the parts that are most affected during blow-ups.

Brain stem. It is the most primitive part of the brain and is responsible for the flow of information from the brain to the rest of the body. It also controls our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Midbrain (the amygdala). The amygdala is an almond-shaped section of the nervous tissues above the brain stem. The midbrain acts as our safety radar and is responsible for our emotions, survival instincts, and memories. It is our fight, flight, or freeze center when our brain detects danger.

The cortex. It is the most highly developed part of the brain and is responsible for our perception, motor action, speech, and thinking. 

The prefrontal cortex. It is the integrated part of the brain that ensures that messages get to where they need to go. Functions of the prefrontal cortex include critical thinking skills, decision-making, emotional regulation, intuition, self-awareness, regulation of interpersonal relationships, morality, and response flexibility. 

When we have a blow-up, our prefrontal cortex temporarily shuts down, and our amygdala takes over. It means we do not have access to the prefrontal cortex’s functions, which means any healthy engagement, problem-solving, decision-making,  or learning becomes difficult. 

Moreover, when we blow-up it is also likely that our children will mirror our behavior and reciprocate with a blow-up.

Tips for when you blow-up

1. Recognize the signs. When we are about to blow-up. Our body gives us clues such as increased heart rates, a pounding head, negative thoughts, and emotions. Increased self-awareness of our warning signs will help us recognize when we are about to get into a blow-up cycle.

2. Focus on your breathing. Take several slow deep breaths from your diaphragm to slow down your heart rate and relax your body. 

3. Notice your brain is in survival mode. When we blow-up, we are in a state of fighting, running away or freezing. Don’t take the experience personally and recognize the vulnerability that you are experiencing knowing that it will be ok. 

4. Take a Positive Time-Out. When our amygdala overpowers our prefrontal cortex, it is not the best time to attempt engagement. In the past, time outs were used as a punitive form of punishment for children’s misbehavior. Children were told to go there to think about their actions. On the other hand, the positive time-out strategy that is recommended in this article is a cool-down spot that is created with children before any form of blow-up occurs. 

With Positive Time-Outs, we have a discussion with our children about a special place in the home we would go when we are upset and overwhelmed. The location represents a place of comfort and rejuvenation. It is not a place for punishment. We can volunteer to go to that spot when we need to regroup and relax. The time-out spot may include our favorite books, music, or art. 

When we notice that we are engaged in a blow-up with our children, we may ask them if they want to go to their cool-down spot or we can express that we need to go to our cool-down place until our emotions have settled. 

5. Engage your cortex. Do mental math, count backward or recite the alphabet in reverse to slow the pace so that you can re-engage your cortex.

What to do when your children blow-up

1. Look out for the signs. When our children are entering or in the fight/flight zone they may experience intense negative emotions, elevated voice, flushed face or behave irrationally. 

2. Notice your body. Are you getting upset as well? Do you notice your warning signs?  If your children blow-up to becomes very easy for you to blow-up as well. Stay calm and connected with your children. Your calmness will help your children to relax. 

3. Validate feelings. Communicate with your children that you understand their feelings and perspective; share your own feelings if appropriate. For example, “I can tell that you are feeling upset right now. I would also be mad about the situation. We will problem-solve when we are both calm.” Ensure your voice is in a calm and empathetic tone.

4. Don’t attempt logical conversation. When our midbrain is in charge, logical reasoning is temporarily out of use. No matter our intentions, we will not be effective in teaching or correcting behavior when emotions are high. It is best to wait until everybody is calm, connected emotionally, and then engage the logical brain. 

5. Encourage engagement of their cortex. You might ask your children to breathe deeply, count to ten, countdown backward or spell their name to help them reconnect with their cortex. 

6. Invite children to use their time-out spot. Encourage your children to go their cool down place until their emotions are calm. Some children may not want to go to the cool down place alone. If that is the case, you may go with them, but do not engage in a conversation or providing instructions as this may lead to an escalation. You may let your children know that you will sit with them as a form of support, but you will not be speaking. 

Blow-ups can be emotionally draining. With practice we can reduce or eliminate them. After a blow up it is good to connect emotionally before anything else is done. Connection can be through hugs, apologies, or verbal expression of love.

Sources

Conflict Unraveled: Fixing Problems at Work and in Families by Andra Medea
Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Seigel and Mary Hartzell

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Taniesha Burke, PhD is a certified parent educator, family relationship coach, developmental psychologist, and child development lecturer. She's the author of Parenting Journal: 120 Days to Strengthening Your Parent-Child Relationship.

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