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Parenting and Hostage Situations: What We Can Learn from Expert FBI Hostage Negotiators When Negotiating With Our Terrorist Toddler (Or Child of Any Age)

For parents stuck at home with their children over the last few months due to COVID-19, you may be feeling like you are in your own real-life version of a hostage situation.  Look at it this way: you’re trapped in a confined space with your kids, without school and work routines, child care assistance, or any […]

For parents stuck at home with their children over the last few months due to COVID-19, you may be feeling like you are in your own real-life version of a hostage situation.  Look at it this way: you’re trapped in a confined space with your kids, without school and work routines, child care assistance, or any distractions except perhaps an iPad, which only seems to make their mood worse after it gets taken away.  Due to the lack of socialization, the disruption of their normal routines as well as the stress they feel from you, your children may even have begun to act like tiny terrorists, wreaking havoc and mess wherever they tread, making outsized and impossible demands of you, throwing grenades at you when you do not immediately say yes to their said demands, and even back-trading you, agreeing to X, then when you deliver X, claiming that was never the deal and demanding Y instead. 

If any of this sounds at all familiar, it’s because negotiating with your children, especially those with younger children, can be demanding even for the most adept and skilled of negotiators.    Most of us, especially when stressed and emotionally triggered by our children will start off with the best of intentions, but then devolve into screaming matches, bribes, icing out and ignoring our children entirely if that’s even possible in confined space, and power struggles.  It’s all normal, but we can do better.

Here is what we can learn from real hostage negotiation that might help us navigate our own versions playing out every day with our children.  The Behavioral Change Stairway Model was developed by the hostage negotiation unit of the FBI and it outlines 5 steps to getting your opponent/hostage/counterparty or in this case child to see your perspective and change their course of action.

The 5 steps are as follows: 

  1. Active Listening 
  2. Empathy
  3. Rapport
  4. Influence
  5. Behavioral Change

The trouble is when we are in a heated moment with our children, frustrated, and emotionally reactive, we will likely skip steps 1, 2, and 3 and jump right into 4 and 5.  We cannot expect to wield influence on our children (or anyone for that matter) without first crossing through steps 1-3.  

Step 1: Active Listening 

The first thing our children need from us is to feel heard.    Active listening is a lifelong skill that can be harder to do than it seems.  Often, when we are triggered or frustrated, our instinct is to do the opposite of listening.  Stopping our own internal track, and not reacting impulsively, but rather listening to their perspective can feel very unnatural, like hitting the pause button on the remote, just at the moment of crisis on screen.  Non-reactivity is often the best reaction. When your child is throwing a tantrum, or being especially oppositional-defiant the best thing you can do is stop and tune in.  Listen and show them you are listening.  How?  Just as you would with an adult.  Paraphrase what they are saying back for them and how they are feeling while repeating some of their words verbatim — one example would be to say: “You’re really upset right now because Mommy is working and you feel ignored, is that right?”  

Step 2:  Empathy

If your child is having a hard time expressing their feelings with words, do it for them: “You’re feeling really angry at mommy right now and that’s okay.”  Giving them permission to feel the full range of their emotions can help them articulate, acknowledge, and process for themselves how they are feeling.  Showing them that all their feelings are normal and understandable, does not mean you have to agree with them, but gives them the sense that you understand where they are coming from and that they are entitled to feel how they feel.  This will help diffuse the situation and make them feel your attention and love — which is often what they are ultimately seeking.  

Step 3: Rapport 

Taking advantage of the first two steps leads to rapport.  Through listening to them and not pushing your agenda, whether that be for them to give up their iPad and get off the screen, or go to sleep, or eat a vegetable, etc., you will shift the dialogue away from a power struggle. Moving towards creating a space between you and your child in which they feel heard, validated, and are able to process their feelings, and potentially unglue themselves from their “stuck” perspective.  This builds a connection and trust between them and you. Thus, bridging the distance they felt a few minutes earlier – where you were the “enemy” — i.e. the “mean mommy”, the screen police, the sleep enforcer, the vegetable pusher, or in my 3-year-old daughter’s eyes: “the bossy queen”. You are no longer seen solely as the one who was trying to manifest control and tell them what to do and when to do it. 

Step 4: Influence

After they feel a heightened level of trust, validation, safety, and love, you can begin to constructively problem-solve by bringing them into the conversation with you.  You and she/he are no longer in heated emotional combat mode but are in a place where you can communicate better with each other to hopefully find a mutually satisfactory solution.  Rather than prescribe something for them, give them the controls.  Ask them if they have any ideas of what you can do to find a solution – restating your two positions in the process.   For instance, “You really want to stay up and play later, and mommy wants you to go to sleep because it’s already very late.  Do you have any ideas about what we can do about that?”  More than not, your child will be in a much more reasonable place to discuss mutually agreeable solutions — and try to be flexible in the process too.  Your flexibility in moving away from your initial demand will model the behavior you want them to display in return.  So if your child’s response is “play more” you can respond, “I am happy to be flexible — how about we set a timer with some extra time for you to play and then you go to sleep?” Your child will most likely agree, and then you can ask “how much longer do you think you should play for?” To which your child, especially in this case assuming they are on the younger side, will say 5 minutes or something like that and you can agree, reiterating the plan for them step by step. 

Step 5: Behavioral Change 

In this final step, they will take action.  You can breathe a sigh of relief and they will feel empowered and safe to act, without feeling they are being controlled by you.  In some cases, you might not even recognize the irate, tantruming child that stood before you only minutes earlier.  Now, they may appear excited, happy, giggling, eager to take on your collective plan.  Enjoy the smooth waters.  No doubt, your ‘tiny terrorist’ will return to town, but you can at least feel good that you have a plan of action to help diffuse the conflict when they do.

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