INVESTIGATE: Insights into the I.D.E.A. Strategy for Parenting Challenges (Part 2 of 5)

byJoshua Metz, LCSW

Last month I introduced the parenting strategy of I.D.E.A. (which stands for Investigate, Describe, Empathize and Act), and described how to use each step when confronted with challenging behavior, episodes of distress, or simply things that impact the daily flow of life. With I.D.E.A., parents can be more thoughtful in their approach to their children, be less reactive and more reflective in what they do, and turn what could be just another tantrum or fight into an opportunity to teach your child how to take in a situation, figure out what is going on, look at it from different perspectives, and come to a more informed decision.

In this article I’ll spend some time discussing the first step in I.D.E.A.: INVESTIGATE. This is perhaps the most important step, so good thing it’s first! When you INVESTIGATE the situation, you’re doing several things that set up the interaction for the following steps.

Don’t React Too Quickly

First, you’re consciously deciding not to react immediately to what is going on. For many of us, I.D.E.A. might stand for: I Decided Enough Already! You don’t care what’s happening – but you know you want it to stop, Now! But what’s enough? And is it really time to stop? And who are you to decide? After all, it’s not your problem (yet)! When you react too quickly, you’re setting yourself up for potentially missing the point, or reacting with too much or too little to your child’s distress. Instead you want to take the time to receive what’s happening, without doing much at all at first. You’re not directly involved yet, so there isn’t anything to which your child can or should react. You’re like a reed, bowing to the strong emotional winds that your child is blowing your way. And you bend, but you don’t break. When the wind passes (as it always does), you return to stand straight and tall. This is an important physical and emotional message that you’re sending your child, as if you’re saying with your body, “I’m not reacting yet, but I’m also not going anywhere. I’m here and I’m not moving.” For the child, who is already upset and emotionally disregulated (maybe there’s some flailing, raised voices, or even the threat of minor toy damage), you represent a calm and steady presence. You’re modeling how you’d like the next few moments to go, but without saying anything. You’re not doing. You’re being – being all the things you want your child to be: Calm, settled, and available to figure out how to get out of the mess into which s/he has stumbled.

Take a Breath

The second benefit to Investigating is that you are slowing down, giving yourself a chance to breathe, literally and metaphorically. In order to look into what is happening without reacting first, you have to pause. And when you take this pause to think about what is happening so that you know what to do in the next step of I.D.E.A. (describe what is happening), you should take a deep breath, or maybe two. Why? Because when a person is emotionally charged, their brains are closer to entering the “fight or flight” reflex of the sympathetic nervous system – it’s like you go on auto pilot with limited choices for action (you either stand and fight or you get out of the way fast!). There is also something called the contagion effect that occurs between people. Emotions can be contagious. When you see someone who is anxious or scared, you too can become anxious or scared. When someone smiles at you and expresses happiness, you too can become happy and you might even smile back. And the contagion effect is especially powerful between people who know one another. So guess what happens when your child expresses anger, frustration or an intense emotion. You can very well catch it, and then you’re in danger of the situation spiraling out of control. By pausing and taking a deep breath, you work against the contagion, calm the sympathetic nervous system, allow yourself more control over what you’re going to do. And if you, the parent, are already feeling on edge or frustrated or a bit worn out, you’re going to be more prone to reacting before thinking. Hitting the proverbial pause button and breathing deeply can go a long way in helping you maintain control and engage in more thoughtful action.

Gather Some Facts

The third benefit to this first step of INVESTIGATING is that you are taking the time to weave this one episode or incidence of challenging behavior within the tapestry of the whole child. Remember, you’re not reacting or doing much with your voice or body at this point. You’re maintaining control by pausing and taking a deep breath or two. You’re now in a good position to reflect on what is happening and do some quick analysis. Is this episode or incidence part of a pattern of behavior you’ve seen before (she always has a hard time getting her things together during the mornings when the neighbor drives to school)? Is there an identifiable trigger (His friend just grabbed the puppet from him without even saying anything)? Is there something in the immediate past that can contribute to the breakdown (She didn’t sleep well last night). I think he’s about to get sick). Is the play, playmate or play space new or different? Is this just one more outburst in a long string that is making up just a bad day? You want to use the time that you’ve created for yourself to see what you can learn and how it can help with what comes next. The information and facts you gain in these precious moments can really go a long way in helping you make better decisions about what to do next, and can really go a long way in sidestepping escalations or missing the mark entirely in terms of what is really going on.

By taking this important step in the I.D.E.A. strategy of INVESTIGATING, you are modeling for your child how you’d like the next few moments to go and what you’re going to look like as you get involved (remember the bending reed); you are maintaining emotional control by slowing down and breathing; and you’re gathering important information about what is going on (possible patterns, triggers, and contributing factors). You’re now ready for the next step: getting directly involved and describing what you’re seeing. But that’s a topic for next month’s newsletter and part three of this series.

In the meantime, any feedback or comments on this newsletter or the I.D.E.A. strategy as a whole are welcome and appreciated. You can reach me at