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What to do when behavior escalates

Boy with escalating behavior tantrum meltdown

It can be very difficult to know what is best to do when children's behavior escalates. Here are some tips!

Stop the why (trigger)

The first step in navigating the storm is to understand the whys (triggers). Think about what this might be, and if you think you know, try to stop it; this may prevent the situation from escalating any further. Every child is unique, and so are their whys (triggers). It could be sensory overload, changes in routine, communication difficulties, or even an unmet need. The Solve the WHY chart is helpful for discovering what is causing the problem.



If you are unsure of what the why (trigger) is or are unable to stop it, your next best option is to try to redirect. This can be anything that will distract them from the why. Sometimes, something as simple as pointing out an exciting thing happening outside the window can be enough. If your child feels that they are not in control of the situation or that the distraction is forced, they are likely to become more stressed. This is where offering choices is helpful; give them the option of something else to do.


Limit language


Children who are overwhelmed often find it difficult to process what is happening around them. Speaking to them can often add extra stress as they will struggle to understand what you are saying or may become angrier by your attempts to reason with them or discuss what is happening. It is best to reduce language, or don’t use any at all; instead, use visuals to offer choices. The choice board can be helpful here.

Prioritize Safety

Make a plan in advance for what you will do if behavior escalates to the point where it is a danger to themselves or others. Ensure that any items that could be hazardous or used as weapons are inaccessible. Sometimes keeping locks on presses where cutlery, cooking instruments, etc. are stored can be helpful.

If you have other children, practice what they will do with them beforehand. For example, they may need to know to leave the room quickly and go somewhere safer. Children often panic when their siblings or peers escalate; they may not react when you ask them to do something and may instead freeze and trap themselves in harm's way. To reduce the chances of this, practice many times beforehand; get them to practice precisely what they will do or where they will go step-by-step until they know it so well that in the moment they will hardly need to think. Often, having a code word for enacting the safety plan can be helpful, as your child will know what to do immediately without you having to explain it to them (you may not have time to do so during an escalation).

Get help

In some situations, you may need help from another adult. It can be difficult to find time to contact someone at the height of an escalation. Plan in advance how you will do this. Is there something that you can press? Can another child deliver a message or make a call?


Stay calm

It's easier said than done, but maintaining your own composure during an escalation is crucial. Staying as calm as possible will allow you to make better decisions. Also your child, who is escalating, will look to you for guidance and stability; other children will become frightened if you seem to be stressed or scared. Very few people manage to stay entirely calm during escalations; however, what matters is that you give a convincing appearance of calm externally. You may feel very different on the inside, but it is important to disguise this so that your own stress levels won’t impact the children.

Beforehand, think about your own reactions when you are stressed; we all react differently, and try to brainstorm ways to stop it from showing. E.g., maybe taking deep, slow breaths to keep your heart rate down would help, or speaking slowly and calmly so that you don’t seem panicked. Think about your body language and try to keep it neutral. E.g., try not to seem like you are in a panicked rush to do things and avoid crossing your arms, as it may be interpreted as confrontational.


Don’t assume that your child has regulated

Your child now seems calmer and is back to themselves. However, what sometimes seems like a de-escalation is actually only a lull, and the peak of the escalation is yet to come. Keep all of the safety measures in place until an appropriate amount of time has passed and you are certain that they have been regulated. During this time, try not to use language or discuss what happened, as this can sometimes restart the escalation.


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