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The Best Way to Stay Calm Amid Challenging Behavior

Dr. Stuart Ablon

As a psychologist specializing in working with kids and adolescents with very challenging behavior, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help kids stay “regulated,” which in essence means calm in the midst of frustration or over-excitement. I have the great fortune of doing a lot of teaching with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Bruce Perry, who often reminds us that dysregulation is contagious! Nothing like a dysregulated kid to get the adults and other kids around them dysregulated too. As a parent or teacher, I’m sure you have experienced this firsthand. When a child becomes dysregulated, they invariably lose a slew of IQ points, and we are quick to follow. At that point, we then have two humans not operating at their best which can lead to some pretty ugly moments. It would stand to reason then that one of the best ways to keep kids calm is to remain calm ourselves. Easier said than done, right? Well, one of the most effective strategies isn’t what you think it is. It’s not deep breathing, mindfulness, or some other technique per se. It’s our mindset.

Mindset matters because how we think about things impacts how we feel about them. For example, if you believe that a child is purposefully escalating in order to try to get you to give in, then it makes sense that you would feel angry and resentful. And, of course, feeling angry and resentful breeds that physiological state we refer to as dysregulation. However, if on the other hand, you viewed the child escalating through a more compassionate and understanding lens, you would be less likely to escalate yourself. This is why we spend a lot of time teaching adults a basic philosophy that underlies all of our work: “Kids do well if they can!” This philosophy is simply meant to mean that if a child could do well, they would do well. If they could handle a situation without escalating, they would. No child wants to become dysregulated. It is not a lack of desire to remain calm that gets in their way. Rather, it is a lack of skill at being able to do so. Reminding yourself that dysregulation is a matter of skill, not will, may be the most effective way to help yourself stay calm when a child is struggling to do just that. We often encourage adults to view kids’ difficulties staying regulated as akin to a learning disability. This mindset also has the advantage of not only being more compassionate but also being more accurate! 50 years of neuroscience research has shown this to be true. Bearing this in mind will help you manage your own emotional reaction.

Teaching this mindset to adults caring for, teaching, and protecting people who exhibit some of the most challenging behavior in some of the most challenging places in the world has repeatedly shown dramatic results. So we know that focusing on your mindset can work in your home, classroom or workplace as well. The next time you feel yourself teetering on the edge of dysregulation, remember and repeat to yourself the simple mantras of “kids do well if they can” and “skill, not will.” And if you forget and lose your cool too, don’t be too hard on yourself. Adults do well if they can too!


As originally posted in: Psychology Today

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