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5 Effective Hostage Negotiation Techniques I’ve Learned As a Toddler Parent

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Toddlerhood is so much fun! No, really – despite the title of this post, and despite what I might occasionally say after a particularly tricky evening or extra-early morning start – seeing our little baby turn into an opinionated, chatty toddler with a predilection for fire engines and double decker buses, a love of playing outside and a hatred of hats, has been awesome. However, toddlerhood does of course require a new set of parenting skills, one of which is tantrum management – a.k.a. conducting hostage negotiations with a toddler. So I thought it was time to share my top five hostage negotiation techniques that I’ve learned as a toddler parent…

5 Hostage Negotiation Techniques for Toddler Parents

1. Work out what they really want

When you arrive on the scene of a hostage situation, it’s not always immediately clear what the terrorists are actually after (at least, that’s what I’ve learned from watching Die Hard). Similarly, when your toddler has a meltdown in the middle of the kitchen floor after you offered them a cup of pineapple juice, the real cause of the meltdown is not necessarily clear. Shockingly, it might not be about the pineapple juice at all – perhaps your toddler is too hot, hungry, tired, teething, or maybe their cuddly monkey toy looked at them funny.

So whatever happens, remember: the target of the hostage-taker is not the hostage. The hostage is simply a bargaining chip which provides a means to an end. Similarly, the target of the toddler is not the tantrum; the tantrum is a bargaining chip…

2. Stay calm

Easier said than done. There’s nothing that has the propensity to make people quite so angry as being told to ‘stay calm’ in a stressful situation, and nothing quite so unconvincing as screaming “I AM calm!” in the middle of said situation.

Whether you’re conducting a hostage negotiation with a toddler or an armed terrorist, however, the principle is the same: stay calm, and try to avoid doing anything that could escalate the situation further. The priority of the hostage negotiator is to ensure the safety of the hostages. In the case of your toddler throwing a wobbly, weirdly, the hostage-taker is also themselves the hostage – and so the aim is to avoid them doing something daft and destructive, like throwing themselves on the floor and banging their head. In order to ensure the safety of your angry toddler, aim to remain calm and de-escalate. How, I hear you cry? Well…

3. Demonstrate tactical empathy

Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss coined the term “tactical empathy” to describe the process of trying to understand your opponent on an emotional level and using that understanding to your advantage. What does that mean when conducting hostage negotiation with a toddler? Well, no matter how ridiculous it is that they are screaming the house down because the sun is too bright today, or because you gave them a snack bar when they asked for a snack bar, you have to try to see things from their perspective. I mean, the sun can be really bright, am I right? Instead of telling them they’re wrong for how they’re feeling (“it’s silly to be so upset about some pineapple juice”), which is negative and thus only likely to escalate the situation, aim to simply acknowledge what they’re trying to communicate: that they’re upset.

Getting your toddler on-side by acknowledging their feelings with some fairly hilarious sentences “I understand you’re sad because I gave you a snack bar”, “I’m sorry you’re upset that a bird flew past”, “I can see that you don’t want to wear your shoes today” can actually help to defuse some (not all… definitely not all) tantrums in their early stages, giving you the chance to hug it out and move on to the next stage of our toddler negotiation…

4. Play for time

Trained negotiators are told never to argue with a hostage-taker and never say a straight ‘no’ to a demand. Instead, the negotiator should use delaying tactics (“I’ll look into it”, “I’ll see what I can do”) or make a counter-offer, while maintaining a positive, upbeat attitude, reassuring the hostage-taker that everything will eventually work out peacefully. This is because the longer a hostage situation lasts, the more likely it is to end peacefully.

Of course, it’s difficult to completely avoid saying no to the many demands of an unreasonable toddler, but you can think about how you’re saying it and aim to avoid escalating a tantrum with a flat ‘no’. For instance, instead of “no, you can’t go in the garden now, it’s raining”, try “we can go play in the garden when the rain stops”. Here’s a fun article with ideas on how to avoid constantly saying ‘no’ to your toddler.

5. Use distraction techniques

Distraction techniques are often key in the management of real-life hostage situations. One approach is to focus the hostage-taker on micro-management of the details of their demands (What type of helicopter do you want? What gender should the pilot be? Would you like your $30 million in fifty dollar notes or should we throw in some twenties?) to buy time for the authorities to find out more about the situation. Another approach is to aim to keep the hostage-taker distracted at the point at which the authorities are moving in to free the hostages, as used in the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980.

When conducting hostage negotiation with a toddler, a more simplistic distraction approach is generally required (and hopefully you haven’t actually had to call in a SWAT team). After a certain point, they are often just crying because they’re crying, and suddenly bursting into a cheerful rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus”, unexpectedly pulling a silly face or initiating some naughty antics by Mr BunBun can be enough to get them to forget all about whatever the problem was in the first place.

Hostage Negotiation with Toddlers: Your Tips

So there you have it… My top tips for hostage negotiation with toddlers. I’d love to hear from other mamas and papas about how you handle the magic of tantrums! Let me know in the comments. Or why not check out my blog post on free and cheap outdoor play activities with your toddler?

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