Conflict with Care: Engaging the Right Way at the Right Time

When we find ourselves embattled, either viscerally aggressive or frozen, there is always an underlying process of anxiety occurring in our neural and limbic systems. The “fight or flight” mechanism that often spirals us beyond the limit of reason and self-control has immediate effects in our neurochemical and hormonal processes.

We become “stressed out” for many different reasons and in many different ways. Escalating behavior is integrally related to our internal experience of anxiety. Understanding this is the fundamental key to understanding how to respond, whether as parents, spouses, or friends, to these behaviors in those we love.

The process of anxiety, of what we all go through in moments of such “fight or flight,” can be broken down into four parts:

1. Rising Anxiety: indicated by any change in normal behavior
2. Defensiveness: beginning of belligerence and of the loss of rationality
3. Acting Out: beginning of acting out behavior and of a near-total loss of rationality
4. Tension Reduction: decrease in physical and emotional issues

The most ideal way for anxiety to be managed is called self-soothing. In the best of situations, we learn to creatively self-soothe in ways that are constructive and do not result in self-destructive behavior or behavior that places undue emotional distance between us and potentially supportive people in our lives.

Yet, because we are not always able to self-soothe, sometimes we need others to offer support. Perhaps we regularly experienced aggression or isolation from caregivers as a young child. Perhaps we have experienced a particularly traumatic event in our lives that we have yet to grieve or experience some form of resolution. Or perhaps we are presently in the midst of an extraordinarily tumultuous time or relationship.

Finally, we may simply have learned or in some way be predisposed toward a wide emotional range. Whatever the cause, the most effective approaches to offering support to a person who is volatile or manifesting some kind of emotional distress are ones that are sensitive to what they are experiencing in that moment.Let’s start with what I’m going to call “typical anxiety.”

If there were an “anxiety meter” from 1-10, I’d say “typical” is a one, maybe sometimes a two, on this “meter.” We all have low levels of neurochemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine flowing in our brains and low levels of hormones like cortisol and oxytocin in our blood that help us function by feeling things that aid us in our social-relational world. It is critical to understand that both what is being felt and experienced as well as what is being observed has neurophysiological and hormonal undercurrents.

Here, I provide some insights into the processes of escalation and de-escalation and tips for responding that are going to be maximally effective and most likely to be well received. These insights are primarily, here forward, applicable to parents with children and teens who display explosive emotions and behaviors. However, the very same principles may well be applied in many other relationships and spheres of life.

1. Rising Anxiety: When we notice our child or adolescent beginning to show signs of frustration, the most effective approach is supportive and nonreactive. At this point, behavior may begin showing some slight deviations from what is acceptable or normal. If we can notice feeling nervous, antsy, or irritated at a two, three, or four on the anxiety meter, then we may likely be able to independently self-soothe.

With others, especially our kids, our best hope approach at this point is to notice their anxiety and to offer support without being too rigid, directive, or physical. Sometimes options for self-soothing need to be facilitated in some form of set time, space, and activity. It is important that this is done with minimal intervention and provided alongside expressions of empathy and availability.

2. Defensiveness: When anxiety has reached what I’m going to call a five or six, we begin to lose our ability to reason and be clear-headed to the same extent that we are feeling this nervous energy inside of us. So, if we are half-way up the anxiety scale, consider that we have also moved half-way down the scale of reason.

In the early stages of anxiety (“rising anxiety”), one of the most effective responses is to assist supportively and nonreactively to allow a process of self-soothing. In this second stage, it may be helpful to offer a bit of clear-headed perspective, which a defensive individual may not otherwise be able to come to very well themselves at this point.

If this is done, it is best done while remaining in a nonreactive nonjudgmental posture. During this time it may also be helpful to become more directive. Directing includes communicating clear limits, offering clear choices, and clarifying consequences.

3. Acting Out: At this point, you are beginning to see not just some degree of loss in rationality but an almost absolute and total loss. This is when you see physical acting out in its varying forms. The belligerence at this point doesn’t just feel like they are testing your authority but that they are wholeheartedly defying it. This is when we arrive at a seven, eight, or nine on the anxiety meter. Remember, then, the level of reason, likewise, may be down to a two or three!

The most effective approach to this behavior requires remaining firm but nonaggressive. In some cases, rarely as parents but more often in juvenile institutions and facilities of incarceration, it may be that even nonviolent physical interventions are appropriate, such as those taught by the Crisis Prevention Institute ( Sometimes such interventions are also utilized by those who work with children and teens diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.

4. Tension Reduction: When a person reaches the pinnacle of where their anxiety trajectory was propelling them, they begin to decompress and experience some downer emotions (as opposed to emotional overstimulation, which is also called flooding”). Now that the flood has dissipated, there may be crying and other compensatory behaviors. After such flooding, our neurophysiological system responds in ways that help a person cool back down, so to speak. They are experiencing a kind of catharsis, or release of tension.

During such catharsis, it is not unusual to try desperately to reason things out in ways that justify whatever behavior we have just engaged in. This is because our reason meter is slowly and steadily rising as our anxiety is reaching back down to a safe level. Because of the way our brains work, it is likely at this point that an individual is going to continue in this direction, from volatility toward vulnerability, although perhaps with a few small aftershocks.

It is important and most effective at this point to proceed with empathy and active listening. In addition, especially with our own children, whether young or teen-aged, it may be helpful to engage in a review of what just happened or even provide a firm challenge to the irrational reasoning that aided and abetted their behavior along the way.

It is imminently important that our approach with others in the midst of extreme emotional aggression, panic, or disengagement fit their stage of anxiety. As well, understanding our own underlying processes during these moments is one of the ways that we may gain more capacity for empathy with others as well as a greater degree of resilience amidst our own times of emotional tumult.

Stages of escalation adapted from the CPI model developed by Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Blake Edwards completed initial training and certification in CPI Nonviolent Crisis Intervention in May 2008 and completed a refresher training and re-certification in May 2009.

© Copyright 2010 by Blake Edwards. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • R.H.

    December 16th, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    Blake, thanks for that. I was tearing my hair out last night. I’m living with this, the “…behavior that places undue emotional distance between us and potentially supportive people in our lives”. That distance has been steadily growing between us as his outbursts become more and more frequent. I feel better even just knowing I’m not the only partner that goes through this and that what happens is normal for those “events”. Hopefully I’ll understand more next time what’s really going on underneath and be more prepared now. Anxiety attacks make the man hard to love some days.

  • Lilian

    December 16th, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    Fantastic article, Blake. Thank you very, very much. What I would also like to know is how, speaking as a person on the receiving end of all this, to stay calm? I get upset when this happens. I can’t help it. When I try to share what I would think were “expressions of empathy and availability” by saying I’m sorry he’s upset and I’m here for him, it just makes things worse. If I say nothing, he says I don’t care. If I do, I’m being patronizing. Maybe I’m saying the wrong things. It would be wonderful if you could follow this up with another article sharing examples of good vs bad phrases to use at the different stages.

  • Flo

    December 16th, 2010 at 4:35 PM

    It was a pleasure to read such an informative and practical blog post. Thanks for putting your time and energy into it, Blake.

  • Gerald S

    December 16th, 2010 at 11:54 PM

    The thing about treating anxiety and tension is that no thing works similarly for two different people and this can put those around such people in a fix because they don’t really know how to manage the situation or help the person…

  • AA

    December 17th, 2010 at 2:45 AM

    It’s really bad when you’re going through something like this and you involuntarily push away those who are trying to help…I’ve been through this and I pushed away a lot of people who were trying to help…when I think of it now I don’t know why I didn’t just say leave me alone instead of pushing them away :(

  • Jan

    December 17th, 2010 at 5:39 AM

    Learning to allow people to process their emotions in these different ways is a tough lesson for all of us and it is even more difficult if we feel that we would process them differently. But what we have to remember is that it is a personal journey for everyone, and that no two journeys are alike.

  • Blake Edwards

    December 17th, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    R.H., Inasmuch as understanding your partner’s undercurrent physiology provides greater understanding, I know that it is also a weak consolation in moments of embattlement. Thank you for your comment.

    Lilian, you pose two very important questions. Whereas I suggested general manners of responding to such volatility (e.g. “nonreactive posture,” “active listening,”), you asked questions that an article like this certainly begs: 1) How do I, on the receiving end, stay calm?, and 2) Are there particular words or phrases that are more helpful to actually say than others?

    Here, I’m compelled to simply reinforce this basic principle, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Stephen Covey made this “Habit #5” in his The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a notion that extends from the concept of empathy.

    Covey, for instance, noted that most people listen with the intent to reply and that when another person speaks we are usually ‘listening’ at one of four levels: 1)ignoring, 2) pretending, 3) selective listening, and 4) attentive listening. He contended that very few of us practice a higher form of listening, *empathic listening,* a kind of careful, painstaking effort to seek to understand your partner’s emotions and convictions and to check your understandings with the utmost openness and vulnerability.

    This kind of an approach is altogether different from debating about what is true or untrue, what is real or false. It is simply geared toward acknowledging, right or wrong, for better or for worse, the messages that underlie the volatility or paralyzation of someone hurting to be known, to be heard, and to be accepted in spite of differences and even wrongdoings.

    As a therapist who is primarily focused on core attachment processes that drive our behavior in relationships, I truly believe that there is something to this sort of empathy response, something that provides a needed sense of trust and security that is the foundation for the even better stuff, like affection and joy.

    In one of my current favorite television shows, Parenthood, the grandparents, Zeke and Camille Braverman, see a couple therapist who provided Zeke advise on specific phrases to use in moments when his blood begins to boil, when anxiety begins to rise, in moments of embattlement or disagreement with Camille. Those words were simply, “I hear you, and I see you.” And while this sort of empathy response would feel a bit cheesy for most of us, most of the time, there is a principle in it that gets to the heart of the matter.

    It may ultimately be both more fulfilling, more efficient, and less destructive to take a slow deep breath and then set out on the difficult course of understanding our partner’s or our child’s full presence, full anger, and full argument, checking all of our assumptions and presumptions with them for clarification and understanding without every actually engaging in the destructive give-and-take that is more instinctive for most of us. Anything less, whether we scream our defenses, our criticisms, our contempt, or simply hide away in fear, to borrow from Shakespeare, is perhaps only a kind of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    I guess what I am suggesting is that it does not so much matter whether you stay calm at all–a “nonreactive” posture is not necessarily a dispassionate one–as whether you remain engaged in the struggle to understand your partner’s underlying grief for how he perceives it and experiences it and not merely how you do. And, in the balance of things, that it does not so much matter the specific words as it matters that they convey “I hear what you are saying to me” rather than simply, “Listen to what I have to say.”

  • Rex

    December 17th, 2010 at 11:56 AM

    Blake: Reading your article was like looking in a mirror. You captured how an anxiety attack all escalates perfectly and how reason goes out the window. I’ve had times when I’ve been in the throes of stage 3 anxiety and I know deep down what I’m saying is unreasonable later but I can’t stop myself. I’m like a runaway train. Thank you for making the incomprehensible clearer for non-anxiety sufferers and their spouses.

  • Austin

    December 17th, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    I’ll definitely check out the crisisprevention website for more tips. Thank you Blake for this illuminating article. I’ll look more sympathetically on my brother now.

  • Judith Schubert

    December 19th, 2010 at 10:44 AM

    Thanks Blake and others who commented. You applied CPI’s Crisis Development Model sm, in interesting ways. The model, developed for staff who interact with people who may experience anxiety and various levels of escalation, highlights the crucial integrated experience between the person evolving in a crisis situation and those who are responding to them. I was fortunate to participate in the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training program last week with some amazing educators and care providers, who had such great examples of how that plays out in their work. I was reminded that the most supportive person offering the most supportive words is usually not “heard” by an individual who has escalated beyond that initial level of anxiety to an irrational state. The most well meaning people are wondering “why didn’t that work this time?”—and are enlightened by an understanding of this integrated experience. As one educator pointed out to me—it may have been a perfect response for a student in an initial stage of anxiety, but then I wonder why an irrational parent isn’t calming down when I approach in the same way! In a nutshell, it is about matching the response to the behavior in meaningful ways to meet the person where they are at and de-escalate.
    Another important aspect of Crisis Development which often gets lost is a recognition of that 4th level—Tension Reduction. When a person has emerged from any level of crisis development, they can feel confused, embarrassed, remorseful etc. This is the time we learn and offers teachable moments which aren’t accessible at other levels. If we don’t talk through things in this time, the person can easily return to a state of Anxiety because of the emotions that are a very real part of that aftermath. In so many settings this critical stage is overlooked because the “problem” has seemingly ended and people want to get back to work or back to “normal”. To all who work with care and patience to re-establish rapport with people who have, perhaps, been a cause of stress for you—-Thank you. It does matter.
    Judith Schubert, President CPI

  • Blake Edwards

    December 22nd, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    Thank you all so much for your comments.

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