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Beautiful baby cryingDe-escalating children’s behavior is a tough job. Whether the child is three or thirteen, once a tantrum starts, it’s hard to bring it to an end.

Bruce Perry, a noted expert on brain development explains that the trick to successful de-escalation is recognizing what part of the brain is activated when the tantrum begins.

The brain develops in a bottom up movement that starts at the brain stem and matures sequentially through the midbrain, limbic system, and prefrontal cortex. Most behaviors requiring de-escalation occur when children experience some dysregulation such as heightened arousal, or strong emotional reactions to environmental triggers. As a result the lower regions of the brain (midbrain, limbic system) are activated, and the cortex “goes off line” so to speak. The intense reactions of the lower brain inhibit the prefrontal cortex’s ability to use cognition to restore homeostasis or process language.

And therein lies the problem. Behavior management techniques that appeal to reason, threaten consequences, or require language processing cause, don’t help. Instead, they encourage further escalation. This is because the cortex is off line. To get it up and running again requires a willingness to use strategies that restore safety and soothe the parts of the lower brain that are aroused. Here are some to try:

  • Assume the role of co-regulator. Engage the child in rhyming or tapping games where they can repeat your patterns back and forth until they calm down.
  • Blow bubbles to regulate breathing. Encourage children to extend the length of their breaths by blowing bigger bubbles.
  • Listen to baroque music.
  • Use Ipod app “Breathe to Relax”

As the cortex comes back on line, enhance the connection by taking a walk while talking about ways to avoid further dysregulation.

Susan E. Craig, Ph.D.

To read more about this topic, see Bruce Perry’s recent book Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered(http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061656798/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?linkCode=as2&tag=schoolhousedo-20)

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