What to do if Your Child is in Crisis

11 Jan 2022
Learn what to do if your child is in crisis. Techniques for calming, de-escalation, and seeking help.

Recognizing Signs of Crisis

Identifying the signs of a crisis in a child's behavior is the first step in helping them navigate through the situation. Understanding the cultural influences on these reactions and observing children's behavior during a crisis can provide valuable insights into their state of mind.

Cultural Influences on Children's Reactions

Children's reactions to adverse events are significantly influenced by culture. For instance, in certain cultures, it may not be deemed appropriate to exhibit intense emotions such as crying loudly, while in others, such displays of emotion are accepted and considered normal.

These cultural norms can impact how a child copes with stress or crisis and, consequently, the signs of distress they exhibit. Some children might internalize their stress due to cultural norms, making it harder to recognize when they're in crisis. In such cases, subtle signs like changes in behavior, loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy, or changes in eating or sleeping patterns may be indicators of distress.

Observing Children's Behavior during Crisis

Children often look to adults for cues on how to manage their emotions, especially during times of stress and crisis. This observation of adults, combined with their own internal coping mechanisms, shapes their reactions.

Daughter sitting upset with her mother in living room

During a crisis, some children might mimic the behavior of adults around them, while others might act out or withdraw as a form of coping. Regularly checking in with children and engaging in open conversations can help adults understand what a child is feeling and provide the necessary support.

When observing a child's behavior during a crisis, consider the following signs:

  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Decline in performance at school
  • Reduced interest in favorite activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Feelings of worry or fear

If you notice a significant shift in a child's behavior or mood, it might be an indication of a crisis. Recognizing these signs early can provide the opportunity to intervene and provide the necessary help, whether it's through calming techniques, de-escalation strategies, or professional help.

Calming Techniques for Children

In stressful situations or when children are in distress, it's essential to have a set of calming techniques at hand. These techniques can help your child manage their feelings of stress and anxiety, potentially preventing an escalation of the crisis.

Belly Breathing for Stress Reduction

The first technique involves belly breathing, a method that encourages the child to draw oxygen deep into their lungs UNICEF. This action can induce a calming effect, reducing stress levels in children.

To practice belly breathing, instruct your child to take a deep breath through their nose, allowing their belly to rise as they fill their lungs with air. Then, they should exhale slowly through their mouth, letting their belly fall. This process can be repeated several times until the child starts to feel calmer.

Imagining a Calming Place

Another useful technique is to engage children in imagining a calming place. This could be a place they've been to before or a place they've seen in a movie or read about in a book. For instance, a white sandy beach, a quiet forest, or a peaceful garden can help children feel more peaceful and less stressed UNICEF.

Encourage your child to visualize this place in detail, thinking about what they can see, hear, smell, and touch. This activity not only diverts their attention from the crisis at hand but also promotes positive feelings and relaxation.

Expressing Emotions through Art

Art can be a powerful tool for expressing emotions, especially for children who may have difficulty expressing their feelings verbally. Involving children in drawing or painting pictures as a form of emotional check-in can help them express their feelings and emotions, potentially aiding in communication UNICEF.

Provide your child with art supplies and encourage them to draw or paint whatever they're feeling. They can use colors, shapes, and images to represent their emotions. Once they've completed their artwork, you can discuss it together, giving them an opportunity to explain their creation and the emotions behind it.

Remember, these techniques are meant to help your child manage their feelings during a crisis. However, if the distress continues or worsens, it's important to seek professional help.

De-escalation Strategies

When a child is in crisis, understanding and implementing de-escalation strategies can be vital for helping them regain control of their emotions. These strategies involve the use of mirror neurons, mirroring posture and volume, and gradual de-escalation techniques.

Importance of Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons play a significant role in helping to calm a child during an emotional outburst. These neurons prompt our minds to echo the nervous systems of others, aiding in calming down. When a child is extremely upset, adults can leverage these mirror neurons to help de-escalate the situation.

Meltdowns in children are an automatic nervous system response and not something they can consciously control. These situations can be potentially dangerous for both bystanders and the child. Understanding the role of mirror neurons and how to use them effectively can help avoid a potential crisis [3].

Mirroring Posture and Volume

Mirroring a child's posture and volume during an emotional outburst can show the child that their feelings are important to you. This approach can help establish a connection with them and make them feel understood [2].

During a meltdown, the logical part of a child's brain (the prefrontal cortex) isn't functioning, as the brain enters survival mode and reacts to a perceived threat. Trying to reason with a child or show empathy during a meltdown often makes things worse. Instead, mirroring their posture and volume can help them feel acknowledged and validated [3].

Gradual De-escalation Techniques

Once the child understands you care and are serious about the situation at hand, gradually making yourself smaller or softer can help de-escalate the situation. Continuing to express validating statements or verbally repeating what the child is saying is important in this step [2].

When the child has cooled down a bit, starting a calm conversation by asking a few close-ended, yes or no questions can help gauge their interest in talking things through. This indicates the child is calming down and getting closer to problem-solving.

Understanding the escalation cycle, a clear pattern that occurs before, during, and after a meltdown, can help in the de-escalation process. Familiarizing yourself with each stage and the different strategies for each stage will help not only respond to meltdowns but prevent them from happening.

In conclusion, each crisis situation is unique and requires a tailored approach. Remember, the goal is not to control the child but to help them regain control of their emotions. Patience, empathy, and understanding are key in these situations.

Effective Communication with Children

Effective communication is an essential tool when managing a child in crisis. It involves practices such as active listening, reflective listening, and using age-appropriate language, which help in understanding the child's feelings and thoughts better.

Active Listening and Engaging Gestures

Active listening is key to helping children feel heard and understood, which can be demonstrated through gestures, eye contact, and asking questions to engage with what the child is saying. When a child is sharing their concerns, getting down to their eye level can help them feel safer and connected. This non-verbal communication, combined with appropriate verbal responses, can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the interaction with the child.

It's also important to avoid offering rewards like candy for basic behaviors, as this may undermine clear boundaries and trust. Instead, set clear expectations, praise good behavior, and use calm consequences to encourage better behavior.

Reflective Listening for Understanding

Reflective listening is a valuable method to demonstrate active listening and care towards a child. It involves repeating back what the child says using different words, allowing the child to express their emotions without judgment. This technique not only confirms that the child's feelings are being recognized but also gives them the chance to correct or elaborate on any misunderstood points [4].

Teaching children to name and express their feelings is important for developing emotional intelligence. Pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal expressions with empathy, and help them put words to their emotions, such as happy, sad, scared, or angry.

Using Age-Appropriate Language

When communicating with children, especially during a crisis, it's crucial to use clear and age-appropriate language. Ensure that the conversation is respectful and makes the child feel loved. Avoid using derogatory words and try to explain things in a way that the child can easily understand [4].

Remember, the goal of effective communication is not just about getting your message across, but also about understanding the child's feelings and thoughts, and building a strong, trusting relationship with them. This becomes especially important when dealing with a child in crisis and can greatly contribute to their emotional development and recovery.

Creating a Safety Plan

In the face of a crisis, a safety plan can be an essential tool in helping children and teenagers cope with overwhelming feelings of distress. It's crucial for parents and caregivers to understand the role of safety plans, the steps involved, and how they can actively participate in the process.

Role of Safety Plans in Crisis Situations

A safety plan is a tool that therapists use when a child or teenager expresses thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or harming others. It includes a series of steps meant to help redirect their attention away from harmful thoughts or feelings when they are feeling overwhelmed.

The long-term goal of a safety plan is to teach kids how to regulate distressing feelings without resorting to harmful actions. While it's not a guaranteed prevention against suicide, it can be effective in diverting impulsive actions until the urge passes, potentially saving lives.

Steps to Redirect Harmful Thoughts

Creating a safety plan involves engaging the child in a detailed discussion about their urges. If the urge is towards suicide, the specifics of how they are imagining doing it are explored. This knowledge enables the clinician to discuss how to make the child's environment safer.

The safety plan also includes ways for the child to calm down, things they can focus on that make them want to live, and people they can reach out to for support. These strategies are crucial in redirecting their attention away from harmful thoughts and towards positive outlets [5].

Involving Parents in Safety Planning

The safety plan is then shared with the child’s parents, who agree to take steps to make the environment safer by removing things a child might use to hurt themselves. The plan also provides parents with the tools to discuss and understand their child’s feelings, which makes them feel heard and understood.

Parent involvement is crucial in the success of a safety plan. By understanding their child's feelings and following the steps in the plan, parents can provide a supportive environment that encourages their child to express themselves openly and seek help when necessary.

In the face of a crisis, it's crucial to have a safety plan in place. By understanding the distressing feelings and urges of the child, and having steps in place to redirect harmful thoughts, a safety plan can provide the necessary support and intervention. Involving parents in the process further ensures that the child feels heard, supported, and safe during their moments of distress.

Seeking Professional Help

In managing a crisis involving a child, it's crucial to recognize when professional help may be needed.

Recognizing Mental Health Signs in Children

Mental health conditions in children are often characterized by changes or delays in thinking, behaviors, social skills, or emotional control, causing distress and disrupting their ability to function well at home, in school, or in other social settings. Warning signs may include abrupt changes in mood, behavior, or personality, extreme difficulty concentrating, signs of substance abuse, intense worrying or fear, various physical ailments, and suicidal thoughts or actions.

It's important to note that not all young people who experience distress have a mental health condition—be careful not to pathologize normal emotions and reactions [7].

Consulting Healthcare Professionals

If a parent suspects that their child has a mental health condition, they should consult their child's healthcare professional and describe the concerning behaviors. It's also essential to communicate with teachers, friends, relatives, or caregivers who interact closely with the child to gather information for the healthcare professional.

Remember to be flexible and responsive in your consultation style. Tailor your approach to the degree of distress and the circumstances of the assessment.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Children's mental health conditions are diagnosed and treated based on symptoms and their impact on daily life. Diagnosis may involve consulting specialists like psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatric nurse practitioners, or other mental healthcare professionals. Diagnostic tools such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) may be used [6].

A psychiatric assessment entails multiple meetings, using information from different sources.

Treatment for children with mental health conditions may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Family therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, or other treatment methods may be recommended based on the child's diagnosis and needs.

Parents and caregivers play a critical role in providing children with information, support, and guidance regarding mental illness, as it can be difficult for them to identify. Many children who could benefit from treatment may not receive the necessary help, emphasizing the importance of knowing what to watch for and how to get help.

As complex as these steps might appear, they're all part of the roadmap for helping your child in crisis. Understanding these steps and seeking professional help when necessary can be the key to managing a crisis effectively and supporting your child's journey towards recovery.


[1]: https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-care/how-to-recognize-signs-of-distress

[2]: https://www.childsavers.org/deescalation-techniques/

[3]: https://hes-extraordinary.com/de-escalation-techniques

[4]: https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-care/9-tips-for-better-communication

[5]: https://childmind.org/article/what-is-a-safety-plan/

[6]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/mental-illness-in-children/art-20046577

[7]: https://www.bmj.com/content/357/sbmj.j1696

[8]: https://www.samhsa.gov/families/parent-caregiver-resources

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