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This Is the Number One Mistake Parents Make When Arguing With Kids

15 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

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 swore 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?

Don’t 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?

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.

(For more tips from FBI hostage negotiators on how to get what you want, click here.)

So what’s the right way to start the conversation? Here’s what parenting experts and hostage negotiators agree on…

Bringing Up Baby

Parents will spend more than $16,000 per year to raise a child in the first two years, as recorded by the USDA 2013 Expenditures on Children by Families Report. The same study shows average of $245,340 ($304,480 adjusted for projected inflation) is spent raising a child born in 2013 to age 17, and clothing accounts for 6% of those costs. Title: "Untitled," from the series The Reluctant Father. Phillip Toledano's daughter, Loulou, was born on July 19th, 2010. Like a lot of men, he was neither ready nor vastly enthused. Over a year and a half, he chronicled his journey from misery to joy in The Reluctant Father (Dewi Lewis, 2013).Philip Toledano, from THE RELUCTANT FATHER
Mother holding baby doll on couch
Since 2012, Cloud b has sold 1.3 million units of sound soother products, including Sleep Sheep and other soft plush characters that play a mother’s heartbeat and sounds of nature to help calm babies and keep them sleeping. Title: "11.26.11," from the series I Promise to Be a Good Mother In this series, Jamie Diamond assumes the role of subject and photographer and puts on the mask of motherhood, dressing up in her mother’s clothes and interacting with Annabelle, a reborn doll. She started staging specific memories from my childhood in a variety of locations—both interiors and landscapes, acting out recalled events and behaviors to explore the mother-child relationship.Jamie Diamond
peanut butter and jelly sandwich
"The average American child, prior to high school graduation, will scarf down 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," boasts the National Peanut Board, which states that $800 million a year gets shelled out on peanut butter alone. Title: "Untitled," from the series Kids Were Here. Ginger Unzueta is part of a collaboration among 30 photographers who specifically look for evidence that children were present without showing them in the frame. Ginger UnzuetaKids Were Here
George the Monkey on a pink tricycle in the toy store
Three out of four kids ride a bicycle every month, Safe Kids reports, but more than half don’t always wear a helmet. "A helmet on the head of a bicyclist between 3-14 years saves society $580, for a cost of only $14 a helmet," according to Childrens Safety Network. Title: "Untitled," from the series Kids Were Here. Colie James is part of a collaboration among 30 photographers who specifically look for evidence that kids were present without showing them in the frame. Her daughter's monkey, George, got dragged around to buy a new bicycle.Colie JamesKids Were Here
Well-worn pink teddy bear
In 2010, Travelodge Hotels Ltd., a hotel chain based in the United Kingdom, claims to have connected nearly 75,000 teddy bears that were forgotten in its 452 hotels with their desperate owners. This year, a North American–based chain, Millenium Hotels and Resorts, is offering a children's amenity kit with their signature Alfred bear for those little ones who might have left their plush friends at home. Title: "Pink Teddy," from the book MUCH LOVED (Abrams Image, October 2013). Mark Nixon takes portraits of our much loved and well-worn plush childhood companions. He writes, "When everything was unknown, they were there. Where anything could happen, they were there. These repositories of hugs, of fears, of hopes, of tears, of snots and smears. Alone at night, they were the comforters, when monsters lurked in darkened corners, when raised voices muffled through floors and walls. These silent witnesses...Sworn to secrecy, unconditionally there, unjudgementally fair and almost always a bear."Mark Nixon from MUCH LOVED
Kelsey Hunter's baby teeth
American children will discover an average of $3.40 per lost tooth under their pillows, estimates the 2014 Visa Inc. Tooth Fairy Survey. This is a pay cut of 8% from 2013. A full set of twenty baby teeth could bring in $68. For "Tooth Fairies" unsure of how much to leave, use the Tooth Fairy Calculator App. Title: "Hunter’s mother holds her daughter’s baby teeth in her palm," from the series Baby Teeth. Kelsey Hunter's mother saved all of her baby teeth. Anyone else would be repulsed by this collection of little broken teeth, but Hunter's mother treasures them because they remind her of the fantastical childhood correspondence Hunter had with the "Tooth Fairy" (Mom) through letters they exchanged under Hunter's pillow. In the series Baby Teeth and the accompanying short film Tooth Fairy, Hunter photographed the teeth in the style of a portrait, with the same tenderness her mother feels for the teeth in her cherished memory.Kelsey Hunter
kid on tire swing with bumper sticker reading "Not Available on the App Store"
Americans spend an average of more than three hours per day on their smartphones. The 2014 Mobile Behavior report found those aged 18-24 spend an average of 5.2 hours. Title: "Untitled," from the series Not on App Store Caio Andrade, Rafael Ochoa and Linn Livijn Wexell created a tumblr website, Not on App Store, with the goal of helping people find the right balance. In a world where everything is always connected, they believe sometimes it is good to just disconnect. They say, "We know technology is here to make our lives easier, and we just want people to remember that are feelings technology can’t replace."Caio Andrade, Rafael Ochoa and Linn Livijn Wexell—Not Available on the App Store
School lockers
In 2014, Mom and Dad will spend an average of $670 on back to school items for their K-12 grade students, according to the National Retail Federation. That amounts to more than $26 billion. Out of this, teenagers will spend $913 million on their own school items. Title: "Untitled," from the series Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School. These lockers are from James Ransom's project documenting Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood on Arden Street, where his kids attended preschool. He loved the colors and relics from when he was in grade school and wanted to document the space before it changed and lost its feeling.James Ransom
LEGO re-creation of a quidditch match from Harry Potter movies
As of January 2014, there were nearly $24 billion in recorded sales for the Harry Potter franchise (including book, movie, dvd, rentals and toy sales), reveals IMDB and Scholastic Children's Books. Title: "Harry Potter," from the series LEGO® creations. Alex Eylar/Profound Whatever is a film buff and LEGO master who recreates the sets from popular movies out of LEGOs.Alex Eylarz/Profound Whatever
Concert by Julie Blackmon
A 2006 Harris Interactive poll of high school principals found that schools with music programs have a graduation rate that is about 17% more than those without programs, states the National Association for Music Education in their "2012 Benefits of the Study of Music" brief. In addition, music students continue to score higher on standardized tests like the SAT than do their non-arts peers, as reported by the College Entrance Examination Board in 2006. Title: "Concert, 2010," from the series Domestic Vacations. Raised as the oldest of nine children, and the mother of three herself, Julie Blackmon takes an approach to her work that is at once autobiographical and fictional. Her images, like those of 17th-century Dutch genre painter Jan Steen, depict layered domestic scenes—homes in disarray, full of rowdy children and boisterous family gatherings.Julie Blackmon
Thin Mints by Julie Blackmon
Annual sales from Girl Scout Cookies topped $650 million in 2012, reports the Girl Scouts of the USA. Out of those purchases, Americans' favorite flavor was Thin Mint, with Samoas trailing by 6% in second place. "Buying cookies is about the skills a girl gains from interacting directly with you...and the experience of running her own cookie business," says the Girl Scouts. To find them in your area, get the app. Title: "Thin Mints, 2014", from the exhibition Free Range at the Robert Mann Gallery in New York. Julie Blackmon's series, Free Range, pokes fun at our consumer culture. This image depicts a Girl Scout troop in an Abbey Road-like line eagerly delivering boxes of the eponymous cookies, a wailing younger sister in the back red wagon having apparently overindulged. The project juxtaposes an enduring sense of nostalgia with keenly contemporary details to twist the artist's signature sly wit into strange, wry, and whimsical stories of family life. Her current exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery in New York (September 4 - October 18, 2014) coincides with the release of her new book, Homegrown (Radius Books, 2014).Julie Blackmon
Bat Mitzvah
According to industry estimates, "the average bar or bat mitzvah budget runs roughly $15,000 to $30,000," writes eMitz.com, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Planning site. "Many variables come into play, such as: time of year, time of day, number of guests and the region. Manhattan and LA are the priciest." Title: "Sarah's Bat Mitzvah, Buffalo, NY," from the series Coming of Age. Rebecca Greenfield has been documenting contemporary American female rites of passage for the past six years, photographing coming of age traditions such as Quinceañeras, Bat Mitzvahs, Debutante Balls, Prom, Homecoming, Sweet Sixteen, Purity Balls, Sorority Rush, Apache Sunrise Dances and more. She looks forward to publishing the project in book form when complete.Rebecca Greenfield
Quinceanera by Rebecca Greenfield
More than 400,000 Hispanic girls celebrated quinceañeras in 2011. Each family spent an average of $5,000 to $10,000, adding up to a $2 million- to $4 million-dollar industry, states Univision Communications. Title: "Ronnie and her mom pose for a photographer and videographer they've hired to document Ronnie's Quinceañera, Brooklyn, NY," from the series Coming of Age. Rebecca Greenfield
Sweet 16 Birthday cake
"Prince" Justin Combs, son of Sean "Diddy" Combs, received a $360,000 silver Maybach for his sixteenth birthday in 2010. Prince Combs' bash was featured as one of the "blingiest" on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," a reality show showcasing the drama and preparations behind the most over-the-top coming of age celebrations. Title: "The birthday cake at Kelley's Saturday Night Fever themed Sweet 16 party, Bearsville, NY," from the series Coming of Age. Rebecca Greenfield
Students Arriving at the Black Prom, Vidalia, GA, May 2, 2009
On average, in 2014, Southern families spent nearly $200 less on prom-related costs than the Northeast and West Coasts, the 2014 Visa Prom Spending Survey discovered. The American average household spending on the annual high school rite of passage was $978. Parents were planning to pay for 56% of prom costs, while their teens covered the remaining 44%. Title: "Parking Lot of the First Integrated Prom, Lyons, Georgia 2010," from the series Southern Rites. For more than five years, Gillian Laub has photographed Mt. Vernon, a town in Georgia where—despite the integration of its schools in 1971—the high school's fall homecoming and spring prom remain racially segregated. In 2009, The New York Times Magazine published some of these images in a photo essay and multimedia piece, "A Prom Divided." It caused national outrage. Now, there is only one homecoming queen and one prom.Gillian Laub
Prom couple
In 2014, the average cost for a prom dress was $195, according to Seventeen Magazine. On top of this, a teen girl's prom expenses include shoes, handbag, hair, makeup, manicure and jewelry. However, teen boys are often expected to bear the costs for many prom activities, and the average costs of a limousine for four hours can be $450 and prom tickets can be $75. This excludes his tuxedo, accessories, their dinner and transportation. For help making a budget, get the Visa Plan'it Prom app. Title: "Nick and Angel," from the series At Risk, With Promise. Amy Anderson has been documenting students at Crossroads Alternative High School for the last four years. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they have been unable to be successful in a traditional school setting for various reasons. Some are brilliant, kind, articulate teenagers; some are abused, addicted, angry youth…many are both. Though they carry the wounds and fears of their past, her portraits honor the strength that develops as they begin a new journey and make changes and choices that will shape their lives.Amy Anderson
Ole Miss tailgaters
The total attendance for 835 NCAA Division I football games in the 2012-13 season was a little more than 38 million, with a per-game attendance of 46,000, making it the second most popular spectator sport in America," Money recently reported. At these events, there are an estimated 50 million tailgaters in the US, as recorded by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. 35% of them are so devoted to the pre-game event that they never actually enter the stadium. Title: "Untitled [Ole Miss #171)," from the series Ole Miss. In 2011, Brian Finke began documenting with wit and humor the tailgating tradition in The Grove at Ole Miss for ESPN Magazine.Brian Finke
Mikey Billings
20% of all millennials live with their parents, and 60% of all young adults receive monetary support from them, reports the New York Times Magazine. Only one in ten young adults from the previous generation moved back under the same roof and needed a financial lifeline from Mom and Dad. Title: "Mikey Billings, 29, Statesville NC," from the series Boomerang Kids. Damon Casarez's project, Boomerang Kids," is a series of portraits of young adults who've had to move back home with their parents after college for financial reasons, or who have never been able to leave home. High student loan payments, a competitive job market, and graduating into a recovering economy are a large reason why there is a trend to stay home longer. The series was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine and was photographed in 8 states and 14 cities across the U.S.Damon Casarez for the New York Times Magazine
from the series "Back to Childhood" by Julien Mauve
The average amount spent per child on toys in the U.S. in 2013 was $371, making it the second-highest global spender (falling short of the U.K. by approximately $70). "The global toy market has an estimated size of more than 80 billion U.S. dollars annually, of which about one quarter can be attributed to the North American market," reports Statista. Title: "Untitled," from the series Back to Childhood In his grandfather's attic, Julien Mauve discovered a box full of toys he used to play with as a child—including this 1961 Fisher Price Vintage Chatter Telephone Pull Toy 747. Each of them reminded him of a particular moment of his childhood and he felt emotionally connected to them. Instead of storing them back into their box, he tried to imagine what they could look like in our adult world. Going further than their power to generate nostalgia, toys offer those who animate them a marvelous power to reinvent the world.Julien Mauve

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.

    From How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:

    …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.

    (To learn the 4 new parenting tips that will make your kids awesome, click here.)

    You may notice that the term in that image is actually “active listening.” What’s the active part? That brings us to step 2…


    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 Chris 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.

    From Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential:

    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.

    From How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:

    When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems.

    Hostage negotiator Chris 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.

    From How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:

    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.”

    (To learn how to win every argument, click here.)

    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.

    Via Crisis Negotiations, Fourth Edition: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections:

    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.

    (To learn the 4 rituals that neuroscience says will make you and your family happier, click here.)

    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. You can do that by simply asking, “What would you like me to do?” It moves them from their dinosaur brain to their cortex, and then negotiating is possible.

    FBI hostage negotiator Chris 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.

    From How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:

    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 2AM.”)

    (To learn FBI behavioral techniques for how to get people to like you, click here.)

    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…


    Sum Up

    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 Al 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.

    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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