When Things Get Out of Control: Managing Escalating Behavior
Managing Escalating Behavior
Liam’s grandfather needed a few things at the home improvement store and decided to take his twelve year-old grand son, Liam, along. As they were walking through the store, Liam became anxious, highly-distracted, and noisy (i.e., making high-pitched sounds). His grandfather decided to forgo the shopping and hurried Liam out of the store, but by this time Liam was really upset. Liam dropped to the ground in front of the electronic doors and refused to move, slapping his grandfather’s hands away as he tried to guide Liam away. His grandfather was frustrated and embarrassed. He said, “I used to just be able to pick Liam up and move him – maybe I should just leave Liam home from now on.”
The incident described here is way-too-familiar for some families. When children are young and small, parents are typically able to manage incidents of escalating behavior pretty readily, especially when the problems occur within the privacy of their own homes. As children get older and larger, these incidents can reach crisis proportions. The purpose of this article is to describe strategies for anticipating, preventing, and managing escalating behavior.
Dr. Geoff Colvin has provided an extremely helpful model for understanding phases of acting out behavior (see the figure in article). In this model, he encourages us to define behavior associated with each level of escalation. This includes how a child appears and interacts when he is calm, becoming upset or agitated, and highly escalated – and even aggressive. For example, when Liam is calm, he is attentive, follows instructions readily, and keeps his voice soft and even. When he becomes agitated, Liam begins looking around and increases his activity level, is slow to comply, and makes loud noises. When highly-escalated, Liam becomes limp and physically resistant and may strike other people if approached. When Liam de-escalates, his behavior gradually returns back to calm. Recognizing these levels of behavior helps parents determine how to respond.
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