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3 motivators of escalated behavior

When kids throw tantrums, lash out, or escalate in some way, there is always a reason. Our challenge as caregivers, is to figure out what that reason is.


A clue is often found in the language a child uses when they begin to escalate. You know the moment—pupils dilate, fists clench, breathing speeds up, their shoulders tense, teeth grind, that wild look flashes across their face—yeah . . . you know what it looks like.

In that moment, kids rarely say much. But what they do can be very telling. It may reveal part of the cause for their escalation. If you can learn from that clue, you might have the information you need to avoid this kind of escalation in the future.

“Leave Me Alone”

This phrase, or one like it, might be a sign that a child is afraid. They detect (whether correctly or not) an imminent threat, and their biological defense systems are coming online.

Much of the adverse behavior we see in kids who have experience trauma, is a stress response to an (often irrational) fear of physical harm. They pattern match their surroundings to a time in the past when they were harmed physically, and begin to fear a repeat of that scenario. So they become defensive.

If a child is pushing you away, trying to create space for themselves, give that to them! Give them the time and space they need to de-escalate. Many a tantrum was created or exacerbated by caregiver impatience.

“Not Fair”

In the moment of escalation, when a child tells you they believe that the holy code of fairness has been violated, they are signalling that the cause of their escalation is anxiety. They fear something precious has been or is about to be taken from them unjustly.

Caregiver, your job is not to tell them that thing shouldn’t be so precious. It might be to help them see that the people are them are more precious (or should be), but be careful. You could easily exacerbate the tantrum by brushing it off.

When a child verbalizes their sense of justice, that should be celebrated. The lack of such an internal compass in adults has led to most of the great tragedies in history. We could do a lot worse than to raise kids with a strong sense of fairness.

“I’ll stop if . . .”

If, in the moment of escalation, a child convenes a bilateral summit with you, that could be a signal they are manipulating.

Manipulative kids get an unfairly bad reputation. Many people have an idea in their mind of a sinister child, willing to do or say whatever it takes to get what they want. But that hasn’t been my experience of manipulative kids.

Manipulative children are often kids who have a history of powerlessness. Their internal sense of justice has been violated so often and consistently that they have developed some very sophisticated tools in an attempt to control their environment. And those skills may serve them quite well in adulthood. But—you, caregiver—shouldn’t be manipulated.

You want to avoid “if/then” and instead create “since/then.” You don’t want to be buying the appropriate behavior from a child. You do want to be rewarding the right behavior. Build a reputation with a child that you are a person who rewards responsibility, respect, and communication. Become, in their mind, reliable in your praise and reward of those behaviors, and a manipulative child will not feel the need to use their many powers on you.

Ray Deck IIIComment