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The Vital Skill of De-escalation

By Nicholas Chan, M.D., UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Child Psychiatry, LJCDS wellness team partner
UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital doctor shares tips to avoid making a situation worse with anger.
The most frequent area I address in my work with families is how to resolve conflict. Whether it is a screaming child denied a toy at Target, a teen who won’t put away their phone, or a spouse stretched to the limit, there is nothing like anger to make a situation worse than it needs to be. Unfortunately, the scars left from these interactions can often persist, especially if they occur too frequently. Here are some principles and strategies to help avoid these escalations. 

  • Timing: During times of stress, our brains have been programmed to change our sense of time. Seconds can feel like minutes, and minutes can feel like hours. Further, if we begin to believe that something will have no end, we will often not respond as well compared to when we know an endpoint exists. I therefore recommend trying to quickly (and subtly) look at your watch when you see tempers beginning to rise, determining at what time 20 minutes will have passed and then reminding yourself of this through the encounter.

  • Mirror neurons: Humans are equipped with an area of the brain that allows us to feel the emotions displayed by others. Therefore, when others around us show a certain emotion, we often begin to feel the same way. This can include joy, excitement, anger and calm. This phenomenon can help both de-escalate or intensify an argument. Specifically, we wish to avoid a child becoming angry, the parent responding with anger and then the child feeding off this anger and escalating further. Instead, we should try our best to display a sense of calm that they can use to slow their own escalation. This includes consciously lowering our shoulders, relaxing our jaw and hands, and taking a few long exhalations before engaging.

  • Discipline vs. punishment: Often during escalations, we are tempted to teach a lesson through punishment. In some cases, this can help the child think twice before going further, but often it just leads to further escalation. When tempers are flaring, know that our brains are not set up to listen well at all. Therefore, when voices are raised, the main goal should be de-escalation. Discipline, or teaching and learning, should ideally be saved for a few hours (or even a day) later when tempers have cooled and real discussion and listening can occur. 

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