Five Steps for Turning Stressful Situations Into Learning Opportunities With Kids


Six-year old Ian’s parents are going through a bitter divorce. With his estranged mom and dad still living under the same roof, Ian experiences a chaotic home environment that includes domestic violence and inconsistent care. At school, Ian often has unexplained meltdowns and major over-reactions to simple requests by his teachers. This morning, when his first period teacher asked him to take out his math homework, he called her a “Bitch” and kicked his chair to the floor.

Tenth graders, Kelli and Jenna are best friends. One afternoon on the school bus, Jenna tells Kelli that she was invited to a party at Becca’s house. Kelli was not invited but she is too embarrassed to admit her feelings of sadness and humiliation to Jenna, so she just smiles and changes the subject. That night at dinner, Kelli refuses to eat. When her mother asks he if she is feeling okay, Kelli shouts, “I feel fine but I hate your lousy dinners. I hate all of you. I wish I wasn’t even part of this family!”

Ian and Kelli share in common a pattern of self-defeating behavior known as displacement. Displacement occurs when a child believes that it would be un-safe to express his anger in the moment to its rightful source. Like a ticking time bomb, he carries his anger around with him, waiting for a place and time where its inevitable expression can occur more safely.

Most often, a person who relies on the defense mechanism of displacement takes out his anger on an unsuspecting, often undeserving target.  Kids like Ian and Kelli do not pre-mediate the time or place of their anger expression, but rather act out both instinctively (for Ian, school is more safe than home, for Kelli, family is less risky than friends) and impulsively discharge their anger in explosive, unexpected ways.

To make matters worse, their unsuspecting targets tend to react in conflict-fueling ways.  Opportunities for connection with kids like Ian and Kelli are lost. Relationships are damaged. Someone who could have been an ally for the child becomes an opponent.

As a parent or helping adult, what can you do when you recognize the dynamics of displacement?

The following five strategies are based on the Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) model of turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for troubled and troubling children and adolescents:

1.    Hold Your Reaction

Pause for a moment. The most human thing you can do is mirror a child’s explosive behavior and respond with equal anger, but this only serves to escalate conflicts. What’s more, when adult’s match a child’s emotional temperature, they miss the opportunity to teach kids strategies for effective anger expression.

2.    Find Out the Motivating Cause

The problems kids cause are not the cause of their problems. If you observe a child having an over-reaction to a seemingly minor question or request, be willing to look beyond his surface behavior and figure out what is motivating it.

3.    De-Escalate the Situation

The first stage of LSCI training teaches parents and professionals that before they can rationally engage a child in a discussion, they must first reduce the emotional intensity of the situation. “Drain Off” is accomplished through the use of de-escalation skills such as paraphrasing, active listening, and supportive non-verbal communication.

4.    Recount the Timeline

When kids are flooded by emotions, often they lose track of what made them so angry in the first place.  Once a child has been “drained off” and is calm enough to talk about what is going on, helping adults should ask open-ended questions to encourage kids to recount the timeline of events that led up to their outburst.

This process of making a child feel heard and understood is relationship building—the precise opposite of what happens when adults allow themselves to be drawn into the conflict and to engage in relationship damaging wars of words.

5.    Explain the Dynamic of Displacement

As you hear your child tell his story, you may begin to recognize the pattern of displacement. Continuing on with your use of questions, ask the child:

•    Who were you really mad at?

•    Who did you take your anger out on?

•    Did that person deserve your anger?

•    What can you do to mend the situation?

•    What could you do to prevent the situation from occurring next time?

Role-playing skills for more effective emotional expression in the future is a helpful way to round out the process.

Management begins with us. As helping adults, we have the power to make a situation worse or better—a relationship damaged or improved. Understanding the dynamics of displacement and recognizing that nothing comes from nothing enables us to put aside automatic defensiveness and to respond to children in ways that build insight and foster positive relationships with those who need our support the most.

Great advice from Signe Whitson, LSW.  Her blog and book are a wealth of information on handling passive aggressive behavior constructively.  Psychology Today has featured her many times for work with children for over 10 years.   Our partner brings her work to us to help the parenting community.  Check out their selection of baby clothes, baby accessories, and baby gifts.  You won't be disappointed.
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