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Youth in Crisis: How Hostage Negotiator Training Can Make Your School Safer

cell phones with black screens on top of a black background

Are today's youth different than previous generations? Perhaps not, but

they face new pressures that weren't present when we were growing up.

Adolescents can be difficult, and we must try to understand what we're

getting into when crisis occurs and a child is involved. Only one second

legally separates a child from an adult. When the clock pushes from 11:59.59 p.m.

to midnight on their 18th birthday, that child is an adult. They can vote, join the

military - and go to jail. But that one second change does not necessarily mean

they are thinking, or acting, like an adult.

This article was written and peer-reviewed for Crisis and Hostage Negotiators in a Law Enforcement capacity. The information in this article is relevant to school safety because Negotiators are trained to pick up a phone; talk to a total stranger; and convince them to voluntarily choose to do the opposite of what they set out to do in the first place. We know that in order most targeted violence in schools is committed by those with a relationship to the school, but one of the most significant barriers to reporting is feeling safe in doing so. Recognizing how to build relationships and rapport is necessary to establishing the feeling of safety with reporting behaviors. This is the purpose of training educators to think like a negotiator. Hostage Negotiator Training will change a mindset and subsequently change an outcome.

As a negotiator, the more information you can have going into a situation, the better off you will be during the negotiation. It's important that we all understand the reality of dealing with children. Per the University of Rochester Health Encyclopedia, the brain becomes fully developed around the age of 25.1 And, according to The Teenage Brain,2 the adolescent mind develops from back to front. In layman's terms, the part of the brain that makes decisions using logic and reasoning - the pre-frontal cortex - is the last part of their mind to develop. The amygdala, or reptilian brain, is what is leading the decision-making process in adolescents and young adults. The amygdala is the part of the brain that gives the signal to fight, flee, or freeze when it receives some kind of stimulus. It then sends that information to the pre-frontal cortex to work with a few other parts of the brain to decide how to respond. The pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the brain then look at previous experiences or things it learned to decide what to do. In youth, this decision-making team is underdeveloped and has no experience to help regulate what happens next.

Negotiators all understand that when emotions are high, logic and reasoning are low. Time allows this imbalance to regulate and allow reasoning to take over. In kids, it can take a lot more time than with an adult. We have to consider the stimulus that kids are inundated with daily such as phones, tv, computers, tablets, and other types of technology to better understand what a negotiator is up against. The amount of time a child spends on a screen has a direct impact on how their brain develops. A child’s brain will prune away the less used neural connectors and build new ones. (Ruder, 2019) A neural connector develops with each new experience thus creating a “bank” to draw information from when the child is exposed to something. The brain processes the information received during that day and then exports it into memory for future use while the child is asleep. Screens impact sleep patterns and the amount of sleep a child gets. Which can affect what is being stored in order to help the decision-making team in the future.


Social media and digital games are designed to cause a child’s brain to light up and activate the reward system. This activation causes a dopamine drop. It feels good, and we all want more of this. So deeper into gaming and the social network they dive. Social media is not unlike drugs in how it affects the brain. When a teen posts a picture or video on a platform and gets positive engagement, they get a dopamine hit. Their brain uses this information to establish a pattern of behavior to get that hit of dopamine. This is the beginning of a learning process called addiction. (Jensen & Nutt, 2015)

With an understanding of how behavior and brain development coexist, we can better understand trends within the adolescent community. We live in a world that is frosted with only the best pictures, experiences, and places. We rarely see anything on social media that resembles reality. We see attractive people doing fun things in amazing places. When we see something that we like, we want to be like that. It is one of Cialdini’s principles of influence, liking. (Cialdini, 2007) When popular kids or people do something different than the norm, it changes the environment of their followers and people that like them. It causes a shift in clothing, pop culture, and behavior.

We see cultural trends elevated to the top of news streams, social media posts, educational curriculum, and social issues. When theses items make it to the top, people want to be a part of it in order to fit in with their peers. Without the ability to think critically or take a bird’s eye perspective of things, it is easy to see how people, especially teenagers and children, fall into trends.

The same is true regarding suicide. When a suicide is highly publicized, then the number suicide attempts and completions increase in the geographical area the story was published. This is called the Werther Effect. (Cialdini, 2007) Even more so there will be an increase in attempts and completions made by people that have perceived commonalities with suicide victim. When a child dies by suicide, there is a chance that that both attempts and completions will also increase because they witnessed the reaction to the loss. If they were already feeling depressed or suicidal, the suicide of their peer gives them social proof, another Cialdini principle, that their feelings are okay, and their life will be honored and glorified in the period after.

Because an adolescent is still trying to navigate the nuance of social interaction, acceptance is really important. When social media goes bad it can be devastating for a child. The things their peers will say in their private messages, in person, or whisper behind their back cause their brain to panic. Without proper direction and reassurance from an outside source, they have very little to help them deal with the immediate “threat” in front of them.

What are some other things that can cause a kid to go into crisis mode? Breakups, school related issues, parents, divorce, injuries, criminal activity, mental health, and bullying all impact the emotional wellbeing of a kid. These things can break up foundational beliefs, support systems, and the identity of the involved child. I realize there is very little police can do to deal with bullying behavior, but it looks a little different today than it did when we grew up. Consider these signs and symptoms to help triage the crisis you are trying to resolve. In other words, we can’t develop a strategy or tactical plan to de-escalate or gain voluntary compliance without knowing what is causing the crisis.

Bullying is physical, verbal, and social. Pushing, fighting, and name calling are examples of traditional physical and verbal bullying. Social bullying can simply making up a lie and getting several people to believe it or repeat it. Presently though technology is a new avenue to pick on others. The internet is forever, and today’s youth have exceptional methods to retain digital evidence of what happens on the internet. They develop work-arounds to keep disappearing messages and videos. They create multiple fake accounts to rally against a cause or another kid. They share intimate and personal information, photos, and videos of each other with the intent to cause pain or discomfort in their intended target. The reasons a child may be bullied can be that they are “new” to the school. They are quiet and isolated. Economics, grades, and homelife are all causes of victimization. It could be that their target is somehow seen as a threat to the perpetrator. The reason this is brought up is there is a correlation to bullying and suicide. (The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools, 2014) According to UC Davis, suicide rates increased nearly 60% in ages 10-24 between 2007 and 2018. ("Even before COVID-19 pandemic, youth suicide already at record high", 2021) This information is pre-pandemic, so it’s not taking into consideration the isolation, distance learning, and other repercussions caused by the COVID-19 virus.

This is general information. It isn’t taking into consideration youth that have multi-risk factors including a developmental disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, diagnosed mental illness, history of suicidal ideation or attempts, familial suicidal completions, sexual or physical abuse, or cultural barriers. We know that isolation and pressure, regardless if the isolation or pressure is real or perceived, are indicators of suicidal intent. Our children are experiencing both isolation and pressure in a whole new frontier that we are trying to better understand ourselves.

With new laws taking effect, there is an increase in serious crimes committed by minors because it is a low-risk high reward for criminal enterprises. There was present mental health concern for our kids already. Now as COVID-19 changes what is normal, the strain on their mental health is more severe. As Crisis Negotiators we have the skills to provide proper direction and reassurance when we are confronted with a youth in crisis. We just have to have a clear understanding of who we are talking to and what they are dealing with on a daily basis. We have to try to see their crisis through their perspective rather than our own. Are today’s youth different than previous generations? No, but the world around them is.

*This article is republished from the National Tactical Officers Association's Trade Publication: The Tactical Edge Spring 2022 edition with noted modifications towards relevance to school safety.


Jensen, F., & Nutt, A. (2015). The Teenage Brain (1st ed.). Harper.

Understanding the Teen Brain - Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center. (2022). Retrieved 1 February 2022, from,cortex%2C%20the%20brain's%20rational%20part.

Even before COVID-19 pandemic, youth suicide already at record high. (2021). Retrieved 1 February 2022, from

Ruder, D. B. (2019, June 19). Screen Time and the brain. Screen Time and the Brain | Harvard Medical School. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from

Cialdini, R., 2007. Influence : the psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins. 2014. The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 February 2022].

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