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Getting Unstuck

A few months ago I took some training on Trauma Informed Practice through Manitoba’s New Directions. It was here that I was introduced to the topic of getting stuck and I found it not only extremely interesting but helpful as well. I will use this opportunity to share what I learned.

Getting “unstuck” might have a couple of different connotations so I am going to clarify what I mean through an example.

Child: Mom!!! Moooooooommmmm.

Me: Yes? Why are you yelling?

Child: Mom! Can I go to Quin’s?

Me: Can you be quiet? Your sister is trying to sleep.

Child: I’m just asking to go to Quin’s, why are you getting so mad?

Me: Stop yelling! I’m not mad.

Child: Then why can’t I go to Quin’s?

Me: Well you won’t be going to Quin’s unless you quiet down.

Child: You never let me do anything! Ughhhhh. Abrupt turn. Slams door.

Me: Shhhhhhh.

As you can see the speakers have come to, what many call, an impasse. An impasse connotes that in a disagreement there is some kind of standoff, stalemate or deadlock. I prefer to use the term stuck because there are ways in which we can become “unstuck.” For anyone who has a child I’m sure you have found yourself in a similar situation. This can also happen when we speak to a spouse, partner, coworker or another adult. It also happens when kids speak to their friends or siblings. If there has been any person that you get in the same argument with over and over again then you know the feeling. Sometimes when I argue with people I know exactly what they are going to say before they say it and I’m sure the same could be said by them of me.

When dealing with kids and teenagers keep in mind their brains aren’t fully developed. Sometimes they don’t have the vocabulary for their feelings and being in a fight pattern will likely be one of the times where they have difficulty putting a name to that stuck feeling.

When stuck you may notice the conversation is going nowhere, it feels circular and it often starts to escalate. Kate Kiernan (Brodovsky & Kiernan, 2017) uses a good rule of thumb. If she has mentioned the same thing 3 or more times, she knows she’s stuck. You may find there are other signs alerting you to being stuck. Perhaps you notice yelling or frustration. Maybe another clue is someone is mentioning not being heard or understood.

So how do we get unstuck? You can start by using the terminology with your kids. Point out times when you feel stuck. That will give them the opportunity to learn what it means. You don’t have to be in an argument to talk about it either. Discussing it during regular conversation can be more helpful because all parties are calm. By bringing attention to this feeling of being stuck it highlights a pattern. When we see the pattern, we can make changes.

Also worth noting is that it’s important to use “we” language as opposed to “you.” When speaking to teenagers or adults I prefer to say “It looks like we need a break from this for a minute” or “We are going in circles and this isn’t helpful to either of us” but it’s not necessary to change the wording, it’s just more comfortable for me. The reason for use of “we” language and a request for a break, is that conversations are meant to be shared experiences but when we get to an escalated, circular discussion, the conversation is no longer shared. In fact, we may, and likely are, arguing about different issues. This is evident upon examination of the scenario I provided earlier, there were actually two arguments taking place. The child was arguing about never getting to do what they want and mom was arguing about how she was being spoken to.

Finally, the resolution should be worked on together. Like most skills, getting “unstuck” takes time and practice. As I mentioned earlier, it’s best to have a conversation with a child or teenager about being stuck when both parties are relaxed. I’m sure if you asked those around you, they could point out times when you get stuck! Talk with your child about what it looks like and feels like and then come up with some ideas you can do together to resolve the situation the next time it happens. If this is happening with another adult, talk about it after time has passed and both parties appear relaxed. If there’s been a rupture in the relationship, taking steps to mend it or resolve the issue will go a long way.

There are other skills everyone, even children, can practice to assist with this process: deep breathing and relaxation are examples. When we are able to notice we are stuck and then calm our breathing it positively impacts the tone of our voice and the words we choose to speak. When one person does this, it encourages the other party to do the same. That’s called co-regulation (Brodovsky & Kiernan, 2017). As with everything we’ve discussed here today, breathing exercises and relaxation are best practiced when in a state of calm.

So let’s quickly review:

  1. We’ve spoken to our children about being stuck when they are calm. We brainstorm ideas of how to get unstuck.

  2. We have practiced some deep breathing and relaxation techniques ourselves and we get bonus points if we’ve taught them to our kids.

  3. If we get into a fight pattern we notice we’re stuck. As the adult, we’re the one taking responsibility for verbally naming the pattern in a way we feel comfortable with. Remembering to use “we” language and avoiding “you” language. Ex: We are stuck. Ex: We are at an impasse. Ex: We are going in circles.

  4. We take some deep breaths in an effort to co-regulate.

  5. We engage in some of the things we had previously brainstormed. This may mean taking a break for a few minutes. We might agree to change the topic and revisit things later. For some conversations and fight patterns, we may need to agree to disagree and avoid discussing it. We might work to find a compromise. In the scenario I discussed at the beginning, the mother could ask the child to write the request down and then promise to read it so both parties feel like they are getting what they want. Whatever it is we decide to do, it’s especially important to remind kids and teenagers that we will work on it together. Reassurance is key to mending a rupture.

  6. If there was no brainstorming beforehand or if this is the first time you are engaging in this type of discussion with your child, friend, coworker or spouse, it’s okay to say, “We are stuck. I’m getting frustrated (or insert another feeling here) and I don’t want to argue. I’m going to take a few minutes to calm down and then we can revisit this.” The key here, it to reflect on what happened during the exchange and think about what they were trying to tell you. Then revisit it with them. Once settled ask them, “Were you trying to say or ask _____?” This will give them the option to clarify. Remember, the argument may have been about two different issues so this step can really help.

Then practice, practice, practice. The more comfortable you are, the more natural it will feel.

Brodovsky, B., & Kiernan, K. (2017, March 14). Making sense of trauma: Practical tool for responding to children and youth [Webinar]. New Directions for Children, Youth, Adults and Families. Retrieved from

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