Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

Five Steps for Understanding What's Bugging Our Kids

Does your child take his anger out on you when you aren't the rightful target?

Last weekend, my daughter, her best friend, and I had a full day's worth of activity and adventure, enjoying thrill rides at a local Summer Carnival, eating cotton candy, throwing darts at a balloon board for prizes, and following it all up with a late afternoon movie. It was Girl Time at its best!

Which is why I was totally blown away when, after dropping off her friend, my daughter's answer to my innocent inquiry of, "So, what should we do for dinner?" was met with a raging, "Nothing! Can we just go home already! I think we've bonded enough for one day."

"Was that a car that just rear-ended me?" I thought momentarily. "Can words cause whiplash?" I wondered. My white knuckles clutched the steering wheel with primitive force and I'm pretty sure the woman in the lane next to me witnessed steam coming out of my ears.

"Seriously?" I started out calmly. Unfortunately, I only began that way. Quick as a flash, angry words of hurt and indignation rang forth from my mouth. I promised to never take my daughter anywhere...ever...again. I threatened to cancel our "bonding plans" for next weekend's Brownie camping trip. I lied and told her that I had had a miserable day too. In short, I mirrored the emotions my daughter had just unleashed on me and fueled the out-of-the-blue conflict with ten additional gallons of gasoline. When my rant was over, I looked at her in the rearview mirror and I knew I had blown it.

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"What happened?" my husband asked as we both stomped into the house.

"Nothing," my daughter muttered as she walked past him.

"Nothing?" he questioned, slightly amused by the obvious incongruence between her words and her body language.

Nothing comes from nothing. This truism, coined by Dr. Nicholas Long of the Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) Institute, often inspires me to look beyond a child's surface behavior to understand his thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that trigger intense outbursts.

Unfortunately, sometimes these words-to-live-by are more easily translated into my professional work than they are into my own parenting practices. It's not that I don't feel a compelling commitment to clients, but rather that my deep emotional investment (read: having spent all day doing everything in my power to be a "fun Mom" and to make sure that my daughter and her friend were having the "best day ever") in my own children sometimes hijacks my rational thought and leads me to react emotionally rather than to respond effectively.

I hate it when that happens.

I wish I could get a do-over when it does. Here is what I would do if I could have a "Take 2" on that moment in the car:

1. Pause for a Moment

The most human thing a parent can do is mirror her child's behavior and respond with equal emotional force. This, however, usually only serves to escalate the conflict and miss out on an opportunity to teach kids about effective anger expression.

With a do-over, I would pause after my daughter's "bonding comment" and do all of the same "count to 10" and "breathing" exercises that I advise young kids to do. It's not that the counting soothes a person so much as that it gives the brain a chance to re-gain control and to move on to Step 2.

2. Recognize that Nothing Comes from Nothing

Though to my knowledge, my daughter, her friend, and I had enjoyed a fantastic day together, clearly there was more to the afternoon than I had been aware of. A do-over would have me recognizing that nothing comes from nothing and that my daughter's over-reaction to my casual dinner inquiry was a red flag that a problem had, indeed, occurred.

3. Drain Off the Emotion

The first stage of LSCI, a therapeutic strategy for turning crisis situations into learning opportunities for kids with chronic patterns of self-defeating behaviors, teaches parents and professionals that before they can rationally engage a child in a discussion about his feelings, they must first reduce the emotional intensity of the situation.

My do-over would have featured me using de-escalation skills such as paraphrasing, affirming, and active listening to my daughter when she showed her first signs of distress during the car ride.

4. Gather the Timeline

Once the intensity of my daughter's initial emotional reaction was drained off, I would use open-ended questions to encourage her to talk about the events of the day. Questions like, "How were you feeling when Addison was still in the car?" would have helped me get a sense of her emotional state just prior to her outburst. Asking, "What kinds of things were you and Addison talking about while you went on the rides?" would have led me to understand that Addison's comment about an upcoming sleepover at a mutual friend's house-an event that my daughter hadn't been invited to-had wounded her deeply and changed the mood of the entire day.

These "insight nuggets," as they are referred to in LSCI training, are the basis for helping adults and kids develop insight into the underlying causes of intense emotions. They create "A-ha" moments where we realize for certain that the problems kids cause are not the causes of their problems.

5. Explain the Dynamic of Displacement

One of the most common patterns of self-defeating behavior in young people is the phenomena of displacement. Displacement occurs when a child takes out his anger on an unsuspecting, often undeserving target. Because the target is taken by surprise, he often reacts in a conflict-fueling way. Opportunities for healthy self-expression are lost. Relationships are damaged. Both parties lose. Sounds a lot like my situation, huh?

In my do-over, somewhere during the process of gathering the Timeline, I would begin to recognize the pattern of displacement. Instead of getting caught up in the conflict, however, I would have continued on with questions, such as:

• Who were you really mad at?
• Who did you take your anger out on?
• Did that person deserve your anger?
• What could you do to prevent the situation from occurring next time?

Open-ended questions such as these empower kids to develop insight into self-defeating behaviors and to build up confidence to manage comparable situations more effectively in the future.

The bad news is that do-overs are just a wish for me. I can't go back in time and re-enact a "perfect" parenting textbook response to my daughter. The good news is that conflict situations with kids tend to replay themselves over and over, which gives parents multiple shots to improve on past responses and to get things "right-er" each time. Understanding the dynamics of displacement and recognizing that nothing comes from nothing helps me to be a better parent with each passing day.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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