Here’s a ridiculous question: would you rather be treated for a bear trap injury,
or learn how to avoid one in the first place?
It’s a gruesome image, but when I think about some of the most upsetting behavioural problems parents face, it seems pretty apt. When a big emotional outburst is happening, when hurtful words (or sharp objects) are being hurled your way, you feel trapped. You might not have seen it coming, but something triggered an explosive reaction, and now the only thing to do is to try to pull yourself out without doing any more damage.
There are ways to get out of a bear trap, but none of them are fun or pretty, and the same goes for explosive behaviour. The very best way to escape a bear trap is to avoid triggering it in the first place. At the end of this article, I also want to share a piece of evidence that I had to learn the hard way, which will help you spring your way out of the bear trap with a lot less damage…
Mapping your way through explosive behaviour
When you have a strong-minded, passionate, enthusiastic child, there are brilliant highs, but there are plenty of moments that are challenging, troubling, and downright impossible.
Even the most emotionally-aware, bright, helpful parent can be taken by surprise by a child’s explosive emotional reaction. Transitions, disappointments, frustrations, and conflicts with siblings can bring the whole day to a screeching halt (sometimes literally.)
Here’s what I’ve tried (and why it didn’t work)
In my experience as a parent and as a behaviour consultant, I find parents usually try to “teach” their way out of these situations. I’ve certainly found myself shouting important life lessons in the middle of a skirmish. There must be a solution or a response that makes sure this never happens again, right? I’ve grasped for “natural consequences” that will offer some kind of important insight for my child in that moment, even though logic and good sense have already left the building (and are halfway down the street.)
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but in all honesty, I’ve tried roaring my way out of the bear trap too. It seemed to work really well for my father, but either I just didn’t have the vocal cords to carry it off, or I was more easily intimidated than my own dauntless offspring. In any case, I needed a better strategy.
No one wants to be a beast or a doormat
It was for this reason that I picked up a book called “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene. This book was a powerful reminder that learning actually happens in those moments when families are calm and connected. The book also outlines a useful method for avoiding triggering those bear traps in the first place. Dr. Greene’s research sprang from his experience with kids who had struggled to learn from the usual consequences, enticements and lectures.
Here’s what I learned when I dug deeper into Dr. Ross Greene’s research: my kids do need me to be firm and consistent, but they also need me to be a good listener and a problem-solver, so they can follow my example. I was also reminded that kids are more open to hearing *my* ideas when I’ve spent some time listening to them first.
I recommend borrowing a copy of this book or adding it to your own library, because the step-by-step approach is very handy, but here is the process Dr. Greene calls Plan B, in a nutshell. Don’t wait until you are already in the bear trap to try to carry out this plan. There is an emergency version of it you can try, but it’s best to practice all three steps first and get the hang of it when everyone is calm (and no one is roaring.)
Capturing your child’s interest and motivation first
The conversation starts out by identifying potential problem from the *child’s* point of view. For instance, you have noticed that the child is really unhappy in certain situations, or has trouble completing tasks even when adults ask over and over. The purpose of the conversation is not for the adult to complain or criticize. If you set up the problem from your own point of view, you might ask something like: “Why do you scream and throw things at me when I ask you to put on your boots?” Instead, try focus on your child’s emotions or struggles, so that same question could be rephrased like this: “I notice you seemed really upset when it was time to go to swimming lessons.” It’s not just neutral; it’s actually compassionate.
Step 1: Empathy
The conversation starts with an invitation. It usually goes something like this:
“I notice you are having a hard time with… What’s up?”
The mood is relaxed and non-judgement. Parents listen, without arguing or even suggesting solutions. They show that they “get it” with phrases like “It sounds like you are feeling…” Then they listen some more.
Parents can ask questions, like “Do you think this is happens more often when …?” or “What do you notice right before … happens?”
The purpose of the listening is to
a) demonstrate compassion and concern
b) gather information about why the problem is happening
c) set a good example of what it means to be a compassionate listener and seeing the problem from a new perspective.
2) Define the problem
Once you have learned more about the problem from your child’s point of view, you are in a position to share your own concerns and helping your child to see why it’s important to address this problem (either because it is hurting your child, or affecting others.)
Without guilting or shaming, you can offer your child some perspective. This might also include discussing what boundaries, safety concerns or rules need to be taken into consideration. It sounds like this: “The thing is…” Here, you can explain what you have been seeing, and what your worry is. For instance, you could say “The thing is, I see that you are really tired in the morning when we get caught up arguing at bedtime,” or “The thing is, I have to get to work by 9 am, so we need to leave the house together by 8:15 am.”
This is where you and your child start to look for the win-win solution. This part of the conversation start with a phrase like “I wonder if there’s a way…”
There are some really powerful advantages to working through this step together.
First of all, your child is gaining experience in problem-solving. You can calmly talk through the pros and cons together in moments like these, because there’s no time limit. You can play around with some wild ideas and get really creative, because there’s no urgency.
Secondly, you have given your child a voice and a seat at the table, so you have helped to create more “buy-in” when it comes to actually using that solution.
If you’re wondering if you are going to remember all this, you can buy a copy of the book, or you can grab this handy download from Dr. Greene’s site. This is just a rough sketch of the process to get you started, and to help you see that there are effective alternatives to those “in-the-moment” behaviour conversations.
Here’s one more fact I wish I had learned many years ago…
…The behaviour bear trap has a QUICK-RELEASE BUTTON.
When your child’s behaviour is explosive, you might feel as if you need to come up with the perfect solution to the problem, or the correct consequence, or the nugget of wisdom that will put it all in perspective. Unfortunately, very few children in that escalated emotional state will be able to hear the solution, or learn from the mistake, or accept the big picture.
Your quick-release button is letting yourself off the hook, and accepting that real learning and long-term problem-solving can come later. If your child needs you to just listen, to name the emotion, to understand what’s really going on underneath the roaring and the mauling, then it’s okay to do that for a while. To learn emotional self-regulation, your child needs someone calm and caring to come alongside them. That role is more important than having all the answers, or occupying the moral high ground.
The more time you spend lecturing or disapproving, the longer you stay in the bear trap. Your child might still be struggling, but you will be much more able to help them once you have stepped out of this “fix-it-right-now” perspective.
Sometimes we are so busy trying to figure out the problem and map out how we got there, and we forget that we are in a relationship, not a puzzle.
Do you need someone to help you get unstuck?
If you need to actually see and hear it to understand it, I’m more than happy to coach you through a problem-solving process that is specific to you and your family. It’s much easier to find a solution when you know what clues to look for, so we can talk through your child’s specific strengths and needs.
Let’s find some time to talk (for free) and I’ll share what I’ve learned.