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Crisis Management and De-escalation

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When you find yourself in a crisis with your teen, it can be a scary situation and difficult to know what to do. Several things may create a crisis situation. Perhaps your teen is talking about suicide, acting out inappropriately, exploding in rage, or engaging in manipulative behaviors. Or maybe your teen has experienced a trauma and is suffering overwhelming feelings of grief, fear, anxiety or depression that are preventing him/her from meeting the normal demands of life. Whatever is causing the crisis, learning how to manage the crisis and de-escalate upsetting or potentially dangerous situations is key to helping your teen.

Build Rapport to Manage a Crisis

When you’re facing a crisis with your teen, you will be able to manage the crisis much better if you build rapport with your child. Generally, people relate better with other who they perceive as being like themselves. This sense of similarity is called rapport. How willing your teen is to cooperate with you is largely affected by the level of rapport you have with him/her. And a lack of rapport increases the chances of conflict. Building rapport takes time but it is worth the effort as it will help you manage a crisis or de-escalate a conflict. Here are a couple tips for building rapport with your child:

  • Listen, listen, listen! Listen to your teen without interrupting, interpreting, or interfering. Prompt your child to keep talking and ask questions that demonstrate your understanding of what he/she is telling you. When your teen feels like you are listening and trying to understand him/her, he/she will feel understood, accepted, and loved. Listening to your teen is one of the most effective tools you can use to build rapport.
  • Communicate and collaborate with your teen. Especially during a conflict or crisis, it is important to communicate calmly with your child and to give him/her the impression that you are on the same side against the problem. For example, you might say, “What can we do about this?” When you communicate with your teen, check yourself to see if your words and your non-verbal communication matches up. If not, you may be sending mixed signals. For example, you may feel irritated but you are trying to express empathy. Your words are empathetic but your tone of voice is sharp or you are tapping your fingers impatiently. Practice communicating with your teen calmly even when you are upset or worried.
  • Show interest in your teen’s life. Your child will feel much more comfortable talking about the big stuff with you if you show interest in the little stuff. For example, eat a meal with your teen, go on a walk, or attend his/her school activity. When you build rapport this way, you increase the likelihood that your teen will talk to you about a problem instead of creating a crisis or conflict.

How to Deal With a Crisis

As you work on building rapport, a crisis may still occur. Take steps to resolve the crisis and confront inappropriate behaviors in a way that does not create additional resistance from your teen. You also want to make sure you do not attack his/her self-esteem. Instead, focus on making your child feel acknowledged, understood, and accepted. Below are some strategies for dealing with conflict:

  • Separate the person from the problem. Direct your teen’s attention to the issue and away from him/herself or the other people involved.
  • Focus on the problem.
  • Do not imply that your teen is the problem. He/she may have problematic behaviors, but don’t make it about who your teen is.
  • Don’t become defensive. Again, direct focus to the problem.
  • Don’t argue or try to reason. When your teen is upset, it’s not the time to talk about responsibility or consequences. Often a person who is upset is unable to reason until he/she has calmed down.
  • Acknowledge your teen’s feelings in a non-threatening way. “I see why you are frustrated.” “I know you had a good reason for saying that, what is it?”
  • Avoid using the word “but” and replace it with the word”and”. For example, “I understand you are angry, and at the same time breaking the dishes isn’t an appropriate way to deal with your anger.”
  • Listen to your child and ask how you can help.
  • Express support and concern.
  • Avoid overreacting.
  • Keep your voice calm.
  • Offer options instead of trying to take control.

As you practice these strategies, your ability to effectively handle a crisis will increase. Keep in mind as you confront conflict and crises that even the most inappropriate behaviors are done in an effort to fulfill some positive intention. Acting out is just a way of gaining power, finding acceptance, getting freedom, relieving pain, etc. For example a teen who self-harms may be doing so to get attention. The desire for attention would be the positive intent. Recognizing the positive intent behind the behavior will help you be more aware of your teen’s needs and will enable you to help him/her find a healthier alternative.

Create a Crisis Plan

One way to increase your ability to handle a crisis is to know how to plan for or even prevent a crisis. You can do this by writing out a crisis plan ahead of time. This would include information about your teen (name and age, mental health history, etc.), medication (include name and type, dosage, prescribing doctor or nurse, and the name of the pharmacy), emergency contact phone numbers and your information as well as any information for doctors or therapists. You will also want to keep track of your teen’s behaviors that trigger a crisis and what will help calm your child or reduce the negative behaviors. Once you’ve figured out what the trigger behaviors are and what helps, include this in your crisis plan. Identifying the signs your child may be about to enter crisis-mode can also help you prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Keep your written crisis plan in a place where you can find it easily.