Part of my role as a school psychologist is responding to critical incidents that involve aggression and violence. I’ve learned to be able to face these situations with calmness and confidence. Many of the techniques I employ are taken from Therapeutic Crisis Intervention developed by Cornell University.
The techniques and principles in this model are highly generalizable and can be applied by families. The beauty of this is that as complex and daunting as aggressive behaviour can appear, the way to respond can be simple and involves answering 3 questions:
1. What emotions am I feeling right now?
If we are not emotionally regulated when we respond to a child there is a high likelihood that this will only perpetuate the situation. The child’s need remains unmet and they now also have additional stress. As the saying goes (and neuroscience attests to), ‘when we are at our angriest… we are at our stupidest’.
Speaking of, when children are highly emotionally dysregulated they don’t have access to their pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for problem-solving, reasoning and perspective taking. So, asking them to ‘make a good choice’ at the height of aggressive behaviour probably isn’t going to work.
We should try and emulate what we can see a duck in a pond look like; on the surface it is calm and graceful, underneath is a little more frantic but that is hidden from view.
2. How are environmental factors influencing the situation?
Many times, behaviours are influenced by those observing it. Removing other children or adults can be the catalyst for de-escalation. Similarly, removing yourself partially or fully as a responder (when safe to do so) can also be what is required for de-escalation to occur.
3. What does my child feel, need or want?
Behaviour is almost always a form of communication that expresses a need. Identifying and reflecting back your child’s need or feeling goes halfway to solving the problem. There is a difference between caving into unrealistic demands and simply demonstrating to your child that you can hear and understand their frustration.
Children may need up to a few hours to recover and return to a baseline state. This is the time to have that conversation about what they can do to get their needs met next time in a more adaptive way.