“Calm down!”

Why we should never say it...

I dealt with with 15 year old this week who was angry. Very very angry.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Karel Noppe (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Karel Noppe (adapted)

So angry and agitated I wondered what he might do next. And how I might help him back to calmness.

How to help someone back to calmness…

Have you ever felt really wound up or annoyed. Me too!

Ever had some say to you, “calm down!”?

What was the result? You got more angry, right? So did I.

If there’s one thing you can say to an angry or distressed person that will make things worse, it’s “calm down.”

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More than a mood…

Being in an emotionally heightened state is more than just a mood. We didn’t decide to feel that way.

There may be a trigger we can point to – something (or someone) that started us off. There may not.

But once we feel distressed, angry, desperate, hopeless – whatever the feeling is – it’s a big deal. We can’t just turn it off!

Why we can’t just calm down…

Heighten emotion feels bad. It’s not something anyone would choose to feel. It’s big, it’s bad and it can be overwhelming:

  • Emotional over-drive – our affective apparatus is working overtime. These are big feelings that seem to have taken over – and, in a way, they have. We aren’t able to see what’s happening in any kind of perspective. We’ve been hit by a wave and we’ve lost our balance. Our sense of control has slipped away and it’s scary.
  • Thinking shut-down – we can’t think straight when we’re feeling like this. Our cognitive faculties are awash with emotional confusion. Our rational thinking is on shut-down. The normal problem-solving skills we rely on don’t function. There’s a disconnect between the feeling bit of our brain and the thinking bit. We’re just not equipped to turn the feelings off.
  • Physical  over-load – our body is popping! The heart is pumping. Our sweat glands are pouring. Muscles are tense so we can’t stand still. Blood rushes to the major muscle groups in readiness to deal with the threat. We are fully prepped and ready to fight or run for our lives.

Because our whole being is experiencing such a heightened state of arousal, we are unable to just switch it off. Impossible.

So telling or politely asking someone to calm down is a nonsense. They can’t.

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The time / intensity model…

Model courtesy of ©Kaplan & Wheeler

Model courtesy of ©Kaplan & Wheeler

According to the model posited by Kaplan & Wheeler it takes around 90 minutes to recover.

That’s an hour and a half!

But how often have you found yourself trying to hurry someone back to feeling calm?

I’ve known well-meaning staff dive straight in to try and “de-brief” a child within seconds of them expressing anger.

To my shame, I’ve done it myself. But it doesn’t work.

So how can we help?…

  • Realise that it takes time – the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that this will take a while. We may want to move things along more quickly, but they can’t. Rushing it is futile. Rushing them is futile.
  • Voice not words – when someone is aroused like this, talking doesn’t help. At least the words don’t. The tone can make a difference though. Try to match their own tone but without the emotion.
  • Position & posture – be aware that the person may be screening for threat. Where you stand – if you stand at all – might really matter. Move slowly. Approach cautiously. Be as non-threatening as you can.

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  • Prioritise calmness – helping the person to deal with the feelings is the main thing. Any behaviour they may have displayed can be dealt with later. Think of it as holding a crying baby and rocking them soothingly.
  • Maintain safety – whilst someone is calming down we should keep them safe. Clear excess people away. Remove noise and distractions. Give them space or privacy if they need it.
  • Suspend consequences – don’t rush to deal with any offensive behaviour they may have displayed. Wait till later for that. Try to do it now and you risk a further escalation of the situation. Calmness first, consequences second.

When enough time has elapsed, the person will return to calm. These things can help that process.

But we shouldn’t rush it!

Final word…

Troubled kids feel like this more often than the rest of us. And they feel it more easily.

Their past experiences of trauma, abuse, threat and danger have wired them to live in a heightened state. They get aroused more quickly, stay “up” for longer and come down again more slowly.

Accepting and working with this is the first step to being able to help.

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts about trauma and your work with young people…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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