How do you deal with out-of-control kids?
The authors of the bestseller How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk have some great ideas that can help any parent. It's really powerful, impressive advice.
But here's the odd thing: Reading the book, I could have sworn I had seen similar ideas before. And I had…
When I was interviewing and researching FBI hostage negotiators.
No, your 9-year-old Jimmy probably isn't committing serious acts of violence (except maybe against his sister) and your teenager Debbie probably isn't going barricade (except maybe in her room with the music on full blast) but many of the principles that are effective for dealing with terrorists, bank robbers and evildoers will also work with your children.
Seriously, these fundamental principles of communication can help you deal with anyone. So let's see what parenting experts and hostage negotiators can teach us, and how it can make for a more peaceful, happier home.
Most importantly, parents often make a mistake at the beginning of their arguments with kids that no hostage negotiator would ever make. And when a conversation starts badly, it's often downhill from there.
What's this error? They deny their feelings.
The FBI has the bank surrounded. But the robbers have taken hostages. It's a tense standoff and the bad guys are demanding food be sent in. They say they're hungry.
The hostage negotiator lifts the phone and says, "Oh, stop it. You just ate. Quit complaining and just cut it out!"
Um, no. An FBI negotiator would never do that. But parents do it with their kids all the time. And the result is often more screaming, more tears, and more hysteria. What's the problem here? They're denying their feelings.
Now as a parent you can't be overly-permissive and give a kid everything they want. But a hostage negotiator wouldn't do that either — maybe the bad guys get the food when they ask for it and maybe they don't. But negotiators wouldn't say, "You're not hungry. Cut it out!"
Of course, parents have to deny actions ("No, Billy, we should not see what happens if we use the Weedwacker in the living room."), But parents often take it a step further and deny what a child is feeling.
Human beings don't like this. I don't like this. You don't like this. What's the typical reaction when you tell an angry person to calm down? "I AM CALM!!!"
And that's an adult. Do you expect a kid to have more control over their emotions than a full-grown person? I didn't think so.
So what's the right way to start the conversation? Here's what parenting experts and hostage negotiators agree on:
1. Listen with full attention
The child is crying and you're at your breaking point. It's easy to reply with something like this, from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:
- "Your retainer can't hurt that much. After all the money we've invested in your mouth, you'll wear that thing whether you like it or not!"
- "What are you talking about? You had a wonderful party — ice cream, birthday cake, balloons. Well, that's the last party you'll ever have!"
- "You have no right to be mad at the coach. It's your fault. You should have been on time."
But denying their feelings like this typically escalates situations.
Think about arguments with your partner. They say, "I feel ignored." You reply with, "No, you're not." How well is that going to go? Exactly. And it's no different with kids. When people deny our feelings we naturally fight back.
So start with listening. You feel better when people listen to you and it's the same for kids.
…let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what's troubling me, and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem … The process is no different for our children. They too can help themselves if they have a listening ear and an empathic response.
And hostage negotiators agree. The FBI uses what they call the "behavioral change stairway." And listening is always the first step:
Former FBI Lead International Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss explains the power of listening:
If while you're making your argument, the only time the other side is silent is because they're thinking about their own argument, they've got a voice in their head that's talking to them. They're not listening to you. When they're making their argument to you, you're thinking about your argument, that's the voice in your head that's talking to you. So it's very much like dealing with a schizophrenic. If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that's the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy's mind. But most people don't do that. They don't walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don't pay attention to emotions and they don't listen.
You may notice that the term in that image is actually "active listening." What's the active part? That brings us to the next step:
2. Acknowledge their feelings
"I know how you feel."
Don't say that. When people are emotional and hear, "I know how you feel" they think you're trying to shut them up. Or they snap back, "No, you don't."
Instead of saying you understand, show them you understand. It's the difference between someone saying to you, "I'm funny" vs. them making you laugh for 30 minutes straight.
So how do you show them you're listening? FBI hostage negotiators use "paraphrasing." It's simple: Repeat back to them what they said in your own words. From my interview with Voss:
The idea is to really listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them. It's kind of a discovery process for both sides. First of all, you're trying to discover what's important to them, and secondly, you're trying to help them hear what they're saying to find out if what they are saying makes sense to them.
Some parents might say, "But what my teenager is saying is crazy!"
You don't have to agree with the feelings but acknowledging them is what gets kids (or anyone) to say to themselves, "This person understands me." And then they can start to see you as being on their side, which is the first step in resolving problems.
FBI behavioral expert Robin Dreeke explains:
The number one strategy I constantly keep in the forefront of my mind with everyone I talk to is non-judgmental validation. Seek someone else's thoughts and opinions without judging them. People do not want to be judged in any thought or opinion that they have or in any action that they take. It doesn't mean you agree with someone. Validation is taking the time to understand what their needs, wants, dreams, and aspirations are.
But parents often don't do this. They launch immediately into advice and lecturing. Clinical psychologists say you can't do this when arguments are still heated.
And neuroscientists agree. When we deny people's feelings, the logical parts of their brain literally shut down.
When an argument starts, persuasion stops … So what happened in people's brains when they saw information that contradicted their worldview in a charged political environment? As soon as they recognized the video clips as being in conflict with their worldview, the parts of the brain that handle reason and logic went dormant. And the parts of the brain that handle hostile attacks — the fight-or-flight response — lit up.
And there's another problem with immediately trying to resolve the argument with a lecture: You don't give your kid a chance to work the problem out themselves. And this is what, over the long-term, we all want most for our children.
When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems.
Hostage negotiator Voss says that when you demand people act a certain way, you threaten their autonomy — and so they naturally resist. When you let them arrive at a solution on their own (or with gentle guiding) they're more likely to comply.
Now this doesn't mean that everything a child says is okay. You're still the parent, after all. When kids push the limits and say things like "I hate you!" it's alright to draw a line.
If "I hate you" upsets you, you might want to let your child know, "I didn't like what I just heard. If you're angry about something, tell it to me in another way. Then maybe I can be helpful."
So you're letting them talk and you're actively listening. What's the first step in getting them to calm down?
3. Give their feelings a name
"Labeling" is very powerful. Seeing a child's anger and simply saying, "Sounds like you're really angry" can actually make a big difference.
But parents are often reluctant to do this. The parenting experts explain:
Parents don't usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling they'll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what she is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged her inner experience.
(Don't worry about using the wrong label. Trust me, they'll correct you. But it still shows you are trying to understand them.)
FBI hostage negotiators feel labeling is one of their most powerful techniques.
A good use of emotional labeling would be, "You sound pretty hurt about being left. It doesn't seem fair," because it recognizes the feelings without judging them. It is a good Additive Empathetic response because it identifies the hurt that underlies the anger the woman feels and adds the idea of justice to the actor's message, an idea that can lead to other ways of getting justice. A poor response would be, "You don't need to feel that way. If he was messing around on you, he was not worth the energy." It is judgmental. It tells the subject how not to feel. It minimizes the subject's feelings, which are a major part of who she is. It is Subtractive Empathy.
And neuroscience research validates that merely putting a label on things helps calm the brain.
From The Upward Spiral:
…in one fMRI study, appropriately titled "Putting Feelings into Words," participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant's amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.
So the shouting and crying have subsided a bit. What's the next step?
4. Ask questions
With adults, clinical psychologist Al Bernstein recommends asking, "What would you like me to do?"
Once you get the person to stop yelling, you say, "What would you like me to do?" The person has to stop and think at that point. What you want is to move an angry situation toward the possibility of negotiating. It moves them from their dinosaur brain to their cortex, and then negotiating is possible.
FBI hostage negotiator Voss takes a similar approach, using a question to make sure you don't threaten their autonomy.
Now as a parent you know that you can't always give kids what they want. Sometimes all you can do is let them know that you understand and you're on their side.
But the mistake parents make is trying to be too logical. This gets away from feelings and turns things into an extended debate.
When children want something they can't have, adults usually respond with logical explanations of why they can't have it. Often, the harder we explain, the harder they protest. Sometimes just having someone understand how much you want something makes reality easier to bear.
After listening, acknowledging feelings, and labeling, they'll be calmer. Often, that's all it takes to be able to reason with them.
But if it's still a struggle, you want to use this calm to find a way to discover and address the child's underlying emotional need ("I don't feel like you trust me") instead of logically denying unreasonable demands ("I want to stay out until 2 a.m.")
Okay, we've covered a bunch of good stuff. Let's round it all up and see how this can work for everyone in your life.
Here's what parenting specialists and FBI hostage negotiators say can help you deal with out of control kids:
- Listen with full attention: Everyone needs to feel understood. The big mistake is thinking kids are any different.
- Acknowledge their feelings: Paraphrase what they said. Don't say you understand, show them you do.
- Give their feelings a name: "Sounds like you feel this is unfair." It calms the brain.
- Ask questions: You want to resolve their underlying emotional needs, not get into a logical debate.
Certainly there are going to be situations where you don't always have the time (or the patience) to go through all the steps. It's not easy. But by listening and focusing on feelings you can make a big difference.
And these principles can work with everyone in your life. Most human needs and feelings are universal.
In fact, clinical psychologist Bernstein recommends talking to every angry person like they're a child:
People say to me all the time, "You mean I have to treat a grown-up like a three-year-old?" I say, "Yes, absolutely."
Feelings are messy and so we avoid them. But when it comes to the ones we love we often forget that, in the end, feelings are really all that matter.
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