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Climbing the escalation mountain – managing outbursts and meltdowns

Climbing the escalation mountain – managing outbursts and meltdowns

Cecilia Corbetta headshot

Cecilia Corbetta

Regional Clinical Lead for London and West – Cecilia joined Place2Be in 2003, and holds national responsibility for Parent Work. She is a BACP accredited counsellor and clinical supervisor with over 17 years of experience delivering counselling, therapeutic services and supervision within schools and private practice.

Our latest Parenting Smart topic, How to manage and prevent overwhelm in children, helps parents and carers to understand how to prevent things getting out of hand, and manage if they do. In this blog to coincide with the launch of the topic, Cecilia Corbetta reflects on her own personal experiences as a parent.

As a family, we have dealt with a few memorable meltdowns over the year. As time goes by, it becomes easier for all of us to look back and laugh at some of them. The time after a play date my daughter bit my husband as he tried to help her into her car seat. The outbursts outside the library when she didn’t get to press the ‘exit’ button of the automatic door as another child had got to it before her. The storming off, sulking and tears in the middle of a homework project.

It has taken a lot of time and many conversations with family and friends to work out what some of the triggers to the outbursts could be for my child. When we meet new people, my daughter comes across as confident and chatty. What I have noticed over time though is that when she is tired or feels out of her depth, she can become suddenly very overwhelmed. And her behaviour then quickly escalates into upset and defiance. The switch between the calm, articulate, friendly child to enraged, wild ogre used to take me by surprise as it seemed so sudden and unpredictable - but I am getting better at spotting the signs. Prevention, I have realized, is far more effective than trying to stop an outburst. Noticing signs of upset and being able to respond in a calm, playful way also works.


However, the single most powerful strategy I have found to deal with my child’s outburst (and by far the hardest to master!) is managing my own feelings and responses.

When I reflect on the meltdowns I mentioned above (and many others), they seem to have something in common: I am involved in all of them, and during every single outburst I really struggled to keep calm in my response. This is a hard thing to admit as I have always thought of myself as someone who is able to sit and tolerate difficult feelings. As a therapist, a big part of my job is to help others express their emotions fully. I am told I am great in a crisis. I am not afraid of anger, or sadness. So, I struggled for some time to make sense of my reaction to my daughter’s outbursts. What made it so hard to model calm behaviour?

I started to pay attention to what was going through my mind as her behaviour escalated, and I noticed I took things personally. I would say to myself, ‘I am doing so much to always put my child first, she should not lash out at me like that’. 

When I was able to pause and check in with myself before reacting, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t anger that fuelled my climb up the escalation ‘mountain’. I didn’t feel cross. I felt disrespected. Inadequate. Exhausted.

Difficult emotions are clear signposts to our beliefs and values. Examining our feelings with curiosity and without judgement, even if it’s uncomfortable, can help us pinpoint what’s most important for us in the moment. To change the way I responded, I had to listen to my feelings and acknowledge my strong need for recognition and appreciation. And my tendency to do too much for others, and then become resentful.

My initial concern about managing my child’s behaviour then turned into a different set of questions. What else can I put in place to meet my need for recognition in order to feel more resourceful and solid? How can I be more diligent with taking care of myself, so I don’t end up ‘running on empty’? What support do I need to be the parent I want to be? I am still grappling with these questions, but this is where I got to so far:

  • My behaviour is more likely to escalate when I am tired, or stressed, or rushing.
  • Taking deep breaths really helps.
  • Also taking a ‘time out’ for myself to re-group when I notice my emotions escalate.
  • Making sleep a priority makes a huge difference to my wellbeing.
  • Although I worry about carving out time for myself, when I do it my family is rewarded with a much happier, lighter and patient mother.
  • Speaking to friends who are also parents is hugely helpful to put things into perspective!

The escalation cycle is like climbing a mountain. Supporting my child not to get too high up works best when I manage the urge not to join them on the climb.

Read more advice on Parenting Smart


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