Calm down

Never in the History of “Calm Down” has “Calm Down” Ever Worked – We Need a Better Approach

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When you hear the phrase “calm down,” what comes to mind? Do you hear it in a condescending tone, like the person’s treating you like a misbehaving child? Do you immediately calm down? Or does that simple, seemingly innocuous phrase, make you mad? 

Yes, context matters. Let’s say you’re in a yoga class and the teacher intones, “Inhale – calm down – exhale – calm down. Ahh, breathe…” No problem. But if you’re in an argument and the person says, “Calm down”? Yeah, no. You’re not going to calm down, are you?

We’ve all been in situations where tempers flare and the goal is to calm down. But saying “Calm down” is almost guaranteed to make it worse, isn’t it? 

If you really want to defuse a situation, there are some things you’ll want to consider before addressing a spazzed-out individual.

When Words Make It Worse

Let’s talk about verbiage. Words are powerful critters, prone to heat up or mellow out a situation, build up or tear down, add meaning, or just plain make the situation worse. 

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Most of us know how to paraphrase a person’s words back to someone. All the best therapists are taught in this. “So if I understand correctly, you’re saying you prefer apples to oranges.” Ah yes, very good. I understand you, you understand me, we’re a happy family… (sorry to all the Barney fans and/or haters).

Now this method is all well and good and often effective if we’re talking about banal matters like fruit preference. But how well do you think it’d work with a really ticked-off person?

A Gas Station Situation

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Imagine with me you’re standing by your car pumping gas, and an obviously high lady approaches you for money. 

Her:  “Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, but I really really need money for food. Do you have some spare change?” 

You: “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”  

Her:  “But I’m really, really hungry. I haven’t eaten in hours, I just want a little money, don’t you have a little money?” 

You:  “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” (Your voice sounds irritated – because you are.)

Her:  “Look, you obviously have money, look at your car! And you can obviously afford gas, so you can give me some money.” And now she’s shaking. And getting red in the face. 

You: (Ah, I remember what to say to help this lady! I’ll use my Therapist voice!) “So if I understand correctly, you are saying you are hungry and need some money for food. Did I get that right?”

Her: “No sh** Sherlock!”  Now she’s waving her arms in the air and wow, you never saw a face that shade of purple before. 

You: (Uh, I need to say something…) “Ma’am you need to CALM DOWN.”

Her: (Immediately calms down and ponders her life choices.) Ha, you wish!

More than likely she’s now feeling a new level of enraged because not only is she high and hungry, now she feels talked down to. Nothing like a little perceived condescension to amp up anger. 

You: “Bye!” And you slam the gas pump back, jump into your car and zoom off. 

Oy, that was close.

Been There, Done That (But No T-Shirt)

Shout-out to the mamas out there, because if you’ve got a tot two or over, you’ve experienced THE TANTRUM(s). It doesn’t matter, really, what sets them off. Hungry? Tired? Frustrated because the new baby’s getting all the attention? Breathing?

And yes, it has to happen in public. The more eyes on the situation, the better. You’re in the checkout line at the grocery store. Little Sally May suddenly flings herself to the floor, kicking, crying, spinning around like a deranged break dancer.  Do you handle it like this?

*Trigger Warning – Sarcasm Ahead:

You: (Smiling sweetly) “Sweetheart, we are in a public place and Mommy’s trying to check out her overflowing shopping cart so we can go home. Everyone is staring and judging me, and I really don’t like it. I can’t allow you to damage our family’s reputation by this appalling display. It’s time for you to CALM DOWN and act rationally, like you should.”

Child:  “Okay, Mommy. You’re right – what was I thinking? Far be it from me to shame our family name in this way. How childish of me to behave like this! Will you please forgive me?”

black boy screaming in room

That would totally happen. Yeah, right.

Fight Fire With Fire?

How about this approach?

You: (Either matching her volume or seething like a psycho) “Stop it! Stop it right now! Get up! Calm down!” 

Child: (Manages to shriek louder somehow. Remains on the floor, kicking wildly. People in the parking lot think someone’s getting killed in there). 

You: (Obviously enraged, scoop her off the floor, and storm out with her under your arm or slung over your shoulder, uttering choice words, abandoning your groceries.)

Ugh! Sound familiar?

This Just Might Work

What if you tried this instead?

Child is wailing and spinning (see above). 

You: (Assess the situation and take a moment to calm yourself. Someone needs to be the grown-up here and you’re it. You calm yourself, then address your child in a firm, gentle voice.)

“Sally May, I’m going to stand here by the cart, and you can come to Mommy when you’re finished.” 

How does she respond? Well from my own personal experience, with four kids who each acted out like this at least once (some several times) in their early years, here’s how it usually goes…

Child continues wailing but is watching Mom for a response. Mom is calm, watching, waiting. Child’s volume decreases and the spins slow. Still watching Mom. Mom is calm, watching. Child decides it’s not working and gets up. Mom is smiling. Child rejoins Mom and Mom gives her a hug. “Good job, sweet girl!” 

Did you see what happened there? Mom kept her cool, her voice gentle, and maintained self-control. The situation – and the child – de-escalated. 

Confession time: My poor eldest had to endure the angry mom for a while, and I was desperate to find a better solution. Thankfully I found the second way, which usually worked, and we all benefitted.

Let’s Talk About Control

Now unless you’re a teacher or daycare worker or still a young mom, you won’t have to de-escalate children very often. But adults can be awfully childish and can lose control. We know from personal experience, people of any age can lose it. We can lose it. 

But who can we control? Can we really control others? No, not really. Heck, most of us struggle to control our own impulses (shout-out to my fellow ADDers!). But we can train to calm ourselves and use an appropriate tone of voice so we can take charge of the situation if need be, and genuinely help the person in front of us actually calm down. 

We need to. Not just for our own protection but for the sake of anyone around us who may be in the crosshairs of an out-of-control person who could do God knows what if they’re not defused. 

So what does taking charge of a situation and using our voice to help a person calm down look like?

Back to the Gas Station

woman in yellow shirt while filling up her car with gasoline
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Let’s revisit the first scenario, with the lady who’s high and wants money at the gas station. Here goes…

Her:  “Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, but I really really need money for food. Do you have some spare change?” 

You: (Turn to face her, quietly and firmly speak) “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”  

Her:  “But I’m really, really hungry. I haven’t eaten in hours, I just want a little money, don’t you have a little money?” 

You:  “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that.” (A little louder, a little firmer)

Her:  “Look, you obviously have money, look at your car! And you can obviously afford gas, so you can give me some money.” She’s shaking. And getting red in the face.

You:  (Firm tone, some warning in your voice) “You’re hungry and upset. I understand. But I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Now I need to get back to pumping my gas.” 

What is her response? Now people are unpredictable, whether under the influence or not. There’s no getting around that, and there’s no fail-safe method for every situation. That’s why it’s important to train the spectrum, from de-escalation all the way to using force, so you’re fully prepared. 

In most cases the person calms down and seeks another source for money, etc. But what if they are so out of control, words won’t stop them? Are you prepared to back your words up with strategic action, so the person is subdued and police are called? Neither you nor the other person is permanently injured, and people in the vicinity are safe? 

Let’s be honest. Somebody needs to be the adult here, the calm one, the cool under pressure person, so violence is stopped then and there, as soon as possible. Do you think someone else should be that person? Are you really depending on another person to protect you? Do you want to chance it?

Our Instincts Will Fail Us, Unless…

We may think, as I mentioned in Maimed in Body and Wrecked Forever, if things go haywire, I’ll know what to say and how to say it. But to be honest, we don’t know what to say. Or, more specifically, we’ll say something, all right. If we’re not trained we’ll instinctively go to one of the classic automatic responses. What are they, you ask? I think you already know, but if you don’t, here’s a quick rundown:

  1. You’ll fight. Now that sounds good, right? So what does that look like when you’re confronted by an aggressive person? You tell them off. How do you think that will end? Yeah, you’ll get them to a boiling point, then get beat up or killed, most likely. That is, unless you train to strategically use a gradually firmer, louder voice, and continue to train to the point where you can calm your voice and take control of the situation. That’s just reality.
  1. You’ll flee. At first glance, that sounds good. Yep, just run away! Run away! But unless you’ve already used the right words and tone to subdue the person, you may not even get the chance to flee. And if you do get away, what’s to stop them from running after you, overtaking you, and having their way? Only strategic, consistent training. Otherwise, you’re pretty much dead meat.
  1. You’ll freeze. Classic trauma response. The attacker stole your voice. You gave them complete control of you and the situation. How do you think that’ll turn out? Unless you’ve trained yourself to switch out of freeze mode to calmly speaking, you won’t win. You won’t. You won’t have the right words or the action to back up any words you manage to squeeze out. And you’ll end up a statistic.
  1. You’ll fawn. You’ll beg for your life, “Oh please don’t hurt me!” You’re telling them they can do what they want. You won’t even fight because you’ve already given up, and they know it. And again, you’ll be yet another statistic. Is that what you want? 

So who runs toward the problem, doesn’t fly, flee, or freeze – and uses their voice to solve it wisely and well? The one who’s been trained. We know police officers move toward the armed person rather than away from them. 

Where do they get that kind of confidence? I think you know by now… training. And tools. And consistent practice to the point where they can calm an enraged person with the right words and right tone at the right moment. Their strategic use of words  – rather than blurting out what their instincts tell them – spurs their courage to take charge, and calm and control the situation. 

They’re the ones who preserve and protect. And minimize the damage. We count on them for that.

Will You Rise to the Occasion?

Who’s going to step up and defend the weak, those around you, the people you love, like your family… your kids… you?

Be the one who decides enough is enough, and is trained to use the right words the right way to calm herself, the situation, and the people involved. Be the woman who decides, I will learn and train and have a toolkit of strategies to handle anything and everything that comes. 

Yes, this world is a crazy place, and someone has to stop aggression and chaos before it destroys so bad there’s no coming back from it.

Your family and those in your sphere need that from you. 

Be that woman.

Join us.

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