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Down the Slide, or Up the Anger Escalator?

Four-year-old Alyssa stands at the top of a slide telling the two other children in the playground to go away. The other children are not happy about the situation. After gently trying to coax her to come down, Dad states, in a seemingly calm tone: "You have to let other children play or we're going home." Hearing this, Alyssa yells back: "No! I don't want to go home!", and she remains at the top of the slide. The children and their parents are looking. Now Dad starts to get really mad. "Come down this minute, Alyssa," he calls back. "I will NOT," responds his daughter.

What will happen next? Dad may ask again or threaten further consequences. Alyssa may or may not comply. If she does not comply, Dad may or may not enforce the consequence. If Dad tries to physically remove her, she may become rigid, or kick and scream, making it nearly impossible to move her. Meanwhile Alyssa's little brother, who had been playing happily, is also crying because he didn't do anything wrong and he doesn't want to leave the park! A fun outing ends in spoiled moods for everyone.

Going for Connection

How might this situation have played out in NVC?

Having heard Alyssa tell other children to stay away, Dad may try to gauge where her actions are coming from.

Dad: "Hey Alyssa, are you enjoying the slide? Are you telling the children to stay away because you want some space to play?" (Instead of judging Alyssa's statement as inappropriate or telling her to stop, Dad guesses that it may come out of Alyssa's need for space.)

Alyssa: "Yup! It's fun to be up here by myself!"

Dad: "So you're enjoying yourself. You like being independent up there."

Alyssa: (swinging on the bar above the slide seat) "Wheeeeee!"

Dad has not said anything about what he would like, but he has taken the first step to connecting with Alyssa. By empathizing with her feelings and needs, he demonstrated to her that he understands her actions without judgment or blame. From here, he has more chance of being heard.

Dad: "I'm noticing the other children are not having so much fun, so I'm worried. I'd like everyone to be able to have fun at the park. Would you be willing to slide down now so everyone can get a turn?"

Some children might agree, but Alyssa refuses.

Dad: "Are you pretty frustrated because you want to choose how to play?" (Instead of hearing Alyssa's "no" as a challenge to his authority Dad tries to understand the feelings and needs that led her to say "no.")

Alyssa: "Yes! Yes! Yes! I'm not coming down!"

Dad: "Alyssa, I want you to be able to make your own decisions. I'm also frustrated and want consideration for everyone here. Do you have any ideas about how you can have fun and make decisions and other children can enjoy themselves, too?"

Alyssa: "They can go play on the other slide."

Dad: "I'm glad you're considering options. Why don't you check with them to see if that will work for them?" (Even though this is not an option Dad prefers, he considers it. For Alyssa to be willing to consider other options, she needs to trust that Dad would consider other options, too. This is a crucial moment: if Dad is intent on one course of action, it's likely to trigger resistance on Alyssa's part.)

Alyssa: (to the two children) "Would you play on the other slide?"

The children: "No!"

Dad: "So, sweetheart, looks like they're still wanting to play on this slide, and I'd really like to respect what they would enjoy, too. So, any other ideas, or would you be willing to slide down now and give them a turn?"

Many children, if they trust that they will not be coerced, would be willing to work things out by now. But some children have a harder time. Imagine Alyssa saying: "I don't care what they want, I'm not coming down." Even the most patient parent would likely lose it by now. How much patience can we expect from ourselves in the face of a very determined young child? Anger might escalate quickly, setting the stage for the power struggle described above.

Working with Anger

If Dad notices that he is getting angry - and if he remembers that when his own anger flares, things don't end up the way he wants - he may try "emergency self-empathy" by reflecting briefly on his own feelings and needs. This process helps us understand our deeper needs and release our emotions - and can be invaluable when we want to stay in peaceful connection.

"Urggg! I'm soooo angry," Dad might note internally. "Why can't she just be reasonable?!" Knowing that anger tends to keep us focused on what we don't like instead of what we would like, Dad continues to explore: "I'm feeling pretty embarrassed with everyone watching. I'm also disappointed. I wanted to have fun and to connect with Alyssa." With self-empathy, Dad shifted from anger to acknowledging his embarrassment and need for acceptance and finally to recognizing his need for connection. Now, instead of acting from anger, Dad can consider options for action that are more likely to meet his needs.

Dad: (in a playful tone) "So you like being so high up and making decisions?" (Dad connects again with Alyssa's needs.)

Alyssa: "Yeah!"

Dad: (smiling) "How do I get up there with you? Should I walk up the slide or take the ladder?" (Dad finds a strategy that meets Alyssa's need to make decisions and his need for connection.)

Alyssa: "You can't come up here, it's just for kids!"

Dad: "Well, I want to play with you, and since you don't seem to be coming down, I guess I'll figure out how to get up there." (Dad stays playful as a strategy for connecting with Alyssa. Alyssa is not in a power struggle as long as he is not.)

Alyssa: "Walk up the slide!"

Dad pretends to try and fail. Alyssa and the other children laugh. They all proceed to play and the tension passes.

Dad didn't give in to Alyssa's demand - nor did he abandon his needs. The underlying needs are almost never the things that immediately present themselves ("I want to stay on the slide!" "You need to get off!"). He needed, and got, connection with Alyssa and care for the other children's needs. Alyssa needed, and got, a chance to make decisions and to play.

At what point would I suggest stopping the dialogue and trying a different course of action? I would move more quickly when there is a question of safety or when taking more time for dialogue seriously impairs other people's ability to meet their needs. The parent can track the other children: are they playing and having fun, or are some crying in frustration? Are they watching, and if so, are they curious about how the he and Alyssa are working this out, or are they frustrated and ready to jump on the slide to push the child down?

It may be that Dad would reach a point at which his skills or willingness to continue to dialogue end, and the tension continues to mount. He might end up deciding to go up and physically remove his child. Even then, his focus could be on his need for protection rather than acting out of anger or an impulse to punish, making it much more likely that the whole interaction would end peacefully and in connection rather than alienation.

It's hard to take time to connect with our children in tense situations. It can sometimes seem odd to start talking about feelings and needs - the child's or our own; I don't know of anyone who was brought up with this kind of vocabulary. But look what was gained: instead of leaving the park screaming or resentful after Dad asserted his power over the child, everyone is still in the park playing, connection has been restored, and Dad has taught his children an invaluable lesson: that people can work together to meet everyone's needs. When they are seven, seventeen, or twenty-seven, the children will have these tools at their disposal to support their own ability to solve problems peacefully.

Reprinted with permission of the author. © Inbal Kashtan.

Inbal's CD, "Connected Parenting: Nonviolent Communication in Family Life" is available from Bay Area Nonviolent Communication

For more information on NVC, see Marshall Rosenberg's Articles and the Center for Nonviolent Communication.