There was a family that I worked with once who had a little boy, Samuel. One time, Samuel’s mom had to set a limit with Samuel because he wanted to keep playing and it was time to leave. This was not the first time that they had had the argument, and Samuel did not respond well. He really wanted to keep playing, and was feeling all the rage and frustration of being under the power and authority of his mother.

On the car ride, Samuel demanded that they stop for ice cream. When his mother said ‘No,’ Samuel struggled with what to do. He wanted to hurt his mother for denying him what he wanted. He wanted to regain some sense of control. So he threatened her with the only hostage that he had, himself. He threatened to put his arm through the car window if they did not stop for ice cream. Now his mother was confused and scared by this threat. Why would Samuel want to hurt himself?

I told her that Samuel didn’t actually want to hurt himself. It was a means to an end. And it was the only means that he could think of. He was hoping that she would give in to his demands. He knew that it would hurt her to see him hurt himself. And if she didn’t, he imagined that he could punish her by hurting himself. He was cutting off his nose to spite his mother, metaphorically speaking.

Fortunately, Sam has a pretty smart mom, and she didn’t take the bait. She knew that Sam was right. Sitting in the back of the car, he COULD put his hand through the window, and there was nothing his mother could do to stop him, short of pulling over and sitting on him. So instead of getting baited into a battle of wills, she cancelled the battle, and acknowledged the uncomfortable truths. She told Samuel, yes he could put his hand through the window and she couldn’t stop him. She also helped put into words the feelings that Sam was trying to express though this threat. She told him that she could see that he was frustrated for not getting his way. She expressed understanding and validated his feelings, rather than try to rush him to feel better. She didn’t argue with how he felt, such as telling him he should get over it or that he was being silly. She simply acknowledged that that was how he was feeling.

She also said that putting his hand through the window would hurt him and would mean he’d have to go to the hospital, and he still wouldn’t get what he wanted. In hearing his own feelings and perspective reflected back instead of an argument, and faced with the reality that his hostage negotiation had failed, Samuel gave up the threat.

I admired Sam’s mother’s ability to put aside her own anxiety at hearing this threat. In this instance, her response worked out well, and proved to be the best way to disarm Sam’s threat. However, I am not certain that this would work as well in every similar threat situation. This story was with a younger child, although the instincts at play are relevant to teens. This tactic would only work in the right circumstances, and may be grossly inappropriate in others. It requires a teen who is still accessible, and a parent who is truly able to acknowledge the truth of the situation, however uncomfortable it may be. Even then, it may not always work as well as this example. It is, however, an excellent tactic to have when faced with a situation that may have few other alternatives.



Comments are closed.