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Tantrum Mitigation Techniques From The FBI’s Former Chief Negotiator

Bedtime has a way of turning into a standoff. There’s the tiny emotional terrorist who is holding your evening hostage. And then there’s you, with the metaphorical bullhorn and blue jacket, asking them to provide a list of demands (kid, nobody can get a private jet to LEGOLand on that short notice).

So how do you de-escalate the situation? Let Gary Noesner help. He was with the FBI for 30 years as Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, talking down militia leaders, hijackers, prison rioters, religious zealots, and international kidnappers. He’s also a father of 3, so he knows how to handle the most demanding and irrational perps — children.

Noesner was also the author of a negotiation model that the FBI still uses today. It’s called the Behavior Change Stairway … only today he’s tailoring it for a situation where you know where the perpetrator sleeps. “As negotiators we don’t show up and say, ‘Mr. Bad Guy, you’re behaving like an idiot,’ and expect them to say, “Oh you’re right, now that I hear you say it, I understand it and will moderate my behavior.’ It doesn’t work that easily. It’s a strategic process.” Here’s how everyone can (hopefully) get what they want.

Tantrum Mitigation Techniques From The FBI's Former Chief Negotiator

Start With Listening
“Listening is not a passive endeavor,” says Noesner. “You don’t just sit back and allow them to talk. You are actively listening.”

  • Ask questions to get more information.
  • Acknowledge that you heard the story that’s being relayed. That means a bit of head nodding and “uh-huhs.”
  • Appreciate their emotional response to it.
  • Summarize what they’ve said so they know they’re being heard.

Be Empathetic
“Acting out is another way of saying, ‘I want you to listen to me.’ Rather than addressing the behavior you don’t like, give them an opportunity — in a non-judgmental way — to express their pent-up frustration. It doesn’t matter if it’s a toddler or a terrorist, what you’re trying to achieve is a working relationship.”

Exert Your Influence
Once you’ve built that trust, you can slowly being to pull them to your way of thinking. But, as Noesner explains, kids and criminals can turn on you in a heartbeat.

Tantrum Mitigation Techniques From The FBI's Former Chief Negotiator

“I used to explain it to my negotiators like this: A farmer wants to get his mule from the field to the barn. The farmer may be able to grab the reins of the mule, show it a carrot and convince it to follow him. But if the farmer ever decides to get behind the mule and push it to the barn, the mule with his pea brain will make the automatic conclusion, “If they’re trying to force me to do it, it’s going against my best interests, and therefore I will resist.” But you know this because you’ve seen it happen 1,000 times in the movies — the FBI is this close. Then the police show up, start bossing everyone around, it all goes to hell.

Just Give Them The Cigarettes
“There was a situation outside of San Antonio where a guy climbed up a radio tower to commit suicide and the police couldn’t get him to come down. They called me and said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ I said, ‘Has he asked for anything?’ They said, ‘Cigarettes.’ I said, ‘Did you give him the cigarettes?’ They said, ‘No, what do we get for it?’ I said, ‘Try giving him the cigarettes.'”

The moral of the story isn’t quitting smoking is rough — it’s that being intractable makes a situation worse. If giving your kid the metaphorical cigarettes will get you closer to a detente, then what’s stopping you from doing it? “We used to have a saying in negotiations,” says Noesner, “Don’t get even, get your way.”

Tantrum Mitigation Techniques From The FBI's Former Chief Negotiator

Never Put A Deadline On Yourself
Bedtime was 20 minutes ago, but stop worrying about the clock. Nobody is going to throw a yellow flag and it’s just stressing you out. Noesner says that when you start creating artificial deadlines, you start to back your options into a corner. “Never put a deadline on yourself,” he says. “If you’re saying ‘You better do this by such and such a time or else,’ well, what’s the ‘or else’? And are you prepared to engage in the ‘or else’? Now you’ve painted yourself in a corner.”

They’re Not Criminal Masterminds
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an FBI official say, ‘That guy knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s manipulating us. He’s getting away with this.’ In my experience most of these guys are playing it moment for moment, and they have no clearly conceived pathway to get out of what they’ve gotten into.”

Tantrum Mitigation Techniques From The FBI's Former Chief Negotiator

Your kid is the same way. They didn’t spend months plotting that tantrum in the parking lot, Oceans 11-style, it’s just happening. Noesner says the most dangerous situations are where there are no clear-cut goals, but high-emotions. The most successful are where a perpetrator isn’t out to hurt anyone, but can’t accomplish something they want, be it money, a getaway car, or a sippy cup on a high shelf. Fortunately, no one has to die for your kid to get what they want, and the only one caught in the emotion bomb if they don’t is you.

You Will Say The Wrong Thing
“In hindsight you’ll say, that was probably a bad approach,” says Noesner. “What will win the day for your consistently is the overall genuineness and sincerity that you demonstrate. Bad guys don’t so much listen to what you say but how you say it. If you take the time and energy and are consistent with your children it will pay a dividend.”