Passionate About the Community
and the Moms Who Live Here

Negotiations With Toddlers – FBI Style

The day my son Wilder turned 18 months old, I found him standing half-naked on the coffee table incoherently angry-sobbing into his sippy cup. He stomped, pouted, and turned innumerable shades of scarlet before collapsing onto his knees and pitching his watered down juice across the room. It hit me just below my cheekbone and left the walls shimmering with fruit punch. He: delighted. Me: seething. My living room still smells like the place where mangoes go to die. At one time or another, most parents have lovingly wagged a finger at their “wittle tywant.” I on, the other hand, have actually worried that one day my son will invade and commandeer a small, politically fragile nation and rule it straight into the ground. He’s very ambitious, you know. His tantrums are straight up ferocious and I knew right from the beginning that I was going to need help. Not from Supernanny or Dr. Sears—from the FBI.



I came across the FBI developed Behavioural Change Stairway Model on Time Magazine’s website while waiting to see the dentist. I know, it sounds a little heavy, but bear with me. I promise you, even caffeinated, I no longer have the mental capacity to delve into anything beyond the basics of the framework. The author, Eric Barker, posits that the five phases of effective negotiation can be applied to almost ANY disagreement. I laughed to myself as I read it, “ Any disagreement, huh? I wonder if this Barker cat has ever tried to wash a preverbal toddler’s hair.” As I was driving home to what turned out to be a highly catastrophic baby meltdown and the sweet, sweet novocaine began to wear off, I decided to give this FBI thing a go…

Active listening.
“Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening. [i]”

I knew this part would be hard. The idea of “hearing out” a child who is the vocal offspring of Mariah Carey and Rob Zombie at full volume would surely require all of my patience. Scene: The wee one was outside and positively desperate to use our giant, adult caveman-sized shovel (presumably, to dig my grave). We have this conflict just about any time he happens to be within a 10-mile radius of a rake, shovel, umbrella, or any other implement capable of impaling someone. Unfailingly, it escalates to full pandemonium. Generally, I will shove my shaking hand into the nearest animal cracker box praying to God that there is at least one mangled hippopotamus capable of subduing the pint-sized ball of wrath. This time, with the BCSM in mind, I waited. I got down on his level and gave him my full attention. I let him get the worst of his frustrations out and did my best to let him know that I was hearing what he was saying by nodding and piping up now and then to help him name his emotions. Shockingly, the only one he can kind-of say is “Mad.”

“You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel. [ii]”

By this point, the piercing baby eagle screams had diminished to whimpers though the young gentleman was still flailing around like a fresh catch dropped onto the dock. Fish, however, are quiet. The idea that I could somehow relate to this 25 pound boy who (probably) wanted to hit me over the head with a shovel seemed a little ridiculous, but I tried to remain open-minded about the whole thing. He was lying sunny side up on the porch, breathing heavily, and staring over his tiny shoulder at the shovel. “Empathy, empathy, empathy,” I repeated to myself, secretly wanting to lock myself in the pantry and mentally escape to an Adults Only Sandals resort. I looked at my little boy, who was looking at the giant shovel, positively longingly. He might have wanted the shovel as badly as I wanted a beach and an open bar. There it was. Empathy. The yearning! The failure to connect! The frustration! Although we were on opposite ends of this particular skirmish, I could absolutely identify with the little guy.

“Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you [iii]”

You would think that, as mother and child, we would have the rapport thing down by now. I mean, he’s not a gun-wielding stranger, and I’m not Special Agent Miller (only in my dreams). I’ve known him since he was the size of a poppy seed, and I would walk through fire for him any day of the week. In these raging tantrum situations however, I quickly become the enemy. There is, in some sense, a lack of confidence that arises when the person that he trusts to give him everything he wants, balks at his request. By showing empathy, Mama hopes to earn some of that lost faith back, but the realization of this step is all up to Bubs. Back to the porch, the Nashville heat, the shovel, and the somewhat less thrashy thrashing child. Because feelings of rapport were nowhere to be seen, I took matters into my own hands. I got the sweaty little bug some water and gave him a big hug. At first, he recoiled, but within seconds his head was buried in my shoulder, and he was twirling my hair around his tiny fingers.

“Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action. [iv]”

After a few more minutes of hard core snuggling, it was time to begin our “negotiations” in earnest. I’ll admit, I’m not much of a problem-solver. I’m more the “Waaaaaaah! Something’s not right so the world is going to explode” sort. Formulating a solution that would appease the volcanic toddler was not something I was looking forward to. Also, I doubted that my influence was any match for his will. I grabbed the shovel and asked him if he wanted to help me put it away. I let him hold onto the handle and told him we were going to stow it away in the backyard. He looked at me like I was crazy, but he seemed intrigued. Like many children his age, he enjoys lending a hand with the odd menial task (he puts me to shame with a Swiffer), and in the midst of an outburst, redirecting his attention slightly and letting him take an active role in the resolution really does seem to help.

Behavioural Change
“They act.[v]”

I can’t decide whose behavioural change was more profound. Typically, I’m shaky, frazzled, and ready to add an extra ounce to my end of day victory wine, but applying the Behavioural Change Stairway Model was transformative. I was strangely calm and enjoyed a rare (very, very rare) moment where I felt qualified for motherhood. Wilder would normally have flung himself on the ground again, red-faced and ready for round two, but he didn’t. He was cool as a baby cucumber. When we first put the shovel down in its safe place, he moaned a little bit and his lower lip popped out in disappointment. Of course, I started to sweat—profusely. It was time to leave the shovel behind us, and as we were walking away, he stopped cold in his little tracks and looked backwards. I held strong and continued. “Come with Mama,” I urged him, and—after a disgruntled sigh—I found him trotting alongside my ankles. Success! Gigantic, triumphant, fireworks-in-the-sky-champagne-for-everyone type success!

That night, I added two extra ounces to my victory wine.

I try to avoid putting my son in the aggressive, criminal psychopath-type camp, but in this particular instance…well, it kind of worked in our favour. Applying the Behavioural Change Stairway Model forced me to re-examine the way I was managing conflicts in our home and reminded me that my son’s tantrums are not the endpoint but, rather, the starting point for resolution. All is not lost when the first tear hits the ground. I don’t think I’ll be recruited by a government agency any time soon, but being cognizant of the emotional trajectory of a conflict and the phases of effective resolution has made me infinitely better at dealing with all sorts of discord.

And yes, it works on husbands too.



[i] Barker, Eric. 2014, March 26.“6 Hostage Negotiation Techniques That Will Get You What You Want.” Time Magazine. Web.

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid



  1. Fall TV Lineup — Four Shows for Mamas - September 20, 2016

    […] about two years now. So, if you’re anything like me, your nights are largely spent ensnarled in FBI-level negotiations about anything from juice temperature (“old juice,” poured within the hour, is unacceptable) […]

Leave a Reply