Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

The Importance of Listening Well to Young People

Life Space Crisis Intervention training principles guide a counselor and child.

In my work as an Elementary School Counselor, I meet with young children everyday who are overcome by emotion. On my best days, it is feelings of pure joy, amazement, excitement, and wonder that take over the senses of these little people. On a typical day, however, the students who find their way to my office are the ones who are overwhelmed by anger, frustration, and/or sadness. On a recent day, a bright third grade student, named Allie* came knocking on my door during her lunch period, with tears streaming down her face. She was distraught over her interpretation of a school rule that she believed would prevent her from ever seeing her favorite teacher again.

Knowing Allie from both joyful and despondent moments over the years, I know that she is a sensitive child who feels her feelings with intensity. During periods of stress, she is especially susceptible to misperceiving the words and behaviors of others. It is not uncommon for Allie to perseverate on a single troubling detail of an incident or to recall only a single part of a teacher’s message and then to become overwhelmed by sadness due to this limited perception. What’s more, Allie tends to be an all-or-nothing thinker; when faced with a stressful situation, she generally assumes the worst possible outcome.

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In working with Allie, and children with similar emotional struggles and behavioral patterns, the skills of Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) are especially helpful for both de-escalating a child’s intense emotions in the heat of the moment and helping the young person develop important, age-appropriate insights in the long-term. What follows is an abbreviated version of an LSCI “Reality Rub” interview, through which I was able to help Allie re-organize her recollection of a troubling situation in order to broaden her perspective about what really happened and in the process, build a new level of trust with her classroom teacher.

THE CONVERSATION

Allie: (Walks into my office with tears streaming down her cheeks).

School Counselor: Allie, you look so sad right now. C’mon in and have a seat. Tell me what’s got you feeling so upset.

Allie: (Breaking down into a sob, Allie begins to tell me her story in a loud, quick, distraught voice, but her words are completely indistinguishable due to her intense crying.)

SC: It’s okay, Allie. It’s okay to just let it out. Whatever happened, we can handle this. I will help you.

Allie: (Continues to cry and talk at the same time. Her words remain very difficult to understand.)

SC: Thank you for coming to me when you are feeling so sad and for trusting me with your thoughts. I am really glad you are here right now, trying to talk about what made you feel so upset.

Allie: (Makes eye contact and continues to cry, but becomes quieter and calmer.)

SC: Allie, I can see that something has happened that has made you feel very upset. I don’t know what it is but I can tell that it is really important to you. I would really like to understand what it is. Can we practice taking some deep breaths together? I know you are trying to tell me what is bothering you but I haven’t been able to understand your words yet. I think a few deep breaths could help us both.

Allie: OK (Takes a few earnest, but exaggerated deep breaths.)

SC: Great. Thank you, Allie. That is so helpful. Let’s breathe together.

Allie and I took 4-5 deep breaths together, then Allie launched into her story. At first, her pace remained very rapid, but her words were now easily distinguishable.

Allie: Mrs. Fisher said I can’t say hello to Mrs. Thomas anymore and I’m just so sad and I’m never going to be able to see her again and she’s my favorite teacher.

SC: (In an affirming voice, paraphrasing her words) Mrs. Fisher said you can’t say hello to Mrs. Thomas anymore and you are feeling very sad about this because Mrs. Thomas is your favorite teacher.

Allie: (With relief) Yes! And I say hello to her every morning and now I can’t anymore! I’m never going to be able to see her again. (Tears return.)

SC: Allie, now I am understanding why you are feeling so sad. You’ve been stopping by Mrs. Thomas’ class every morning to say hello this year and it’s part of your daily routine. You count on that quick hello and hug to make you feel happy every morning and now you are worried you won’t be able to do that anymore.

Based on my relationship with Allie, I was very aware that the previous year, she had formed a strong emotional connection to her second grade teacher, Mrs. Thomas. That bond carried over to this school year and Allie made it a point each morning to say hello to Mrs. Thomas before heading to her third grade classroom. The simple “hello,” which may have seemed like a dispensable formality to some, was actually a vital part of Allie’s daily routine. It “filled her gas tank,” so to speak, and helped her to feel valued, safe, and secure in school each day.

Allie: (Quieter) Yes. I give her a hug every morning but now Mrs. Fisher says I have to go straight to my own class when I get off of the bus. Now I won’t be able to say hi to Mrs. Thomas anymore.

SC: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me, Allie. I can tell that this is really important to you. Can you tell me more about how this came about? When did Mrs. Fisher tell you that you couldn’t say hi to Mrs. Thomas anymore?

Allie: This morning!

SC: Oh! So this happened this morning. It’s lunchtime now. Did something happen else happen between this morning and now to make you feel sad?

Allie: No. I’m just sad about this morning but I was holding it in. I just remembered about it while I was eating my lunch and now I am so sad that I won’t be able to see Mrs. Thomas anymore ever again.

SC: OK, so this happened early in the day but you just started thinking about it again now. I see. Were you in your classroom (Mrs. Fisher’s room) when this happened?

Allie: No. I was in the hallway. I was walking toward Mrs. Thomas’ room when Mrs. Fisher saw me. She was walking in Hallway A too. She asked me why I was walking in that hallway instead of the hallway to my classroom. She said that kids had to go straight to their classrooms when they got off of the bus in the morning. Now, I’ll never be able to go see Mrs. Thomas in the morning.

SC: Oh! So you were getting off of the bus and heading toward Mrs. Thomas’ room to say hello when Mrs. Fisher saw you and noticed you were walking in the wrong hallway. She told you that the school rule was that all of the kids had to go straight to their classrooms in the morning.

Allie: Right.

SC: Allie, did you tell Mrs. Fisher that you were going to say hello to Mrs. Thomas?

Allie: No. She told me I had to go straight to class so I turned around and went back to her room right away.

SC: You followed her directions to go to your classroom even when you were feeling so upset about missing the chance to say hi to Mrs. Thomas?

Allie: Yes. I didn’t want to get in trouble.

SC: Wow, Allie! I’m impressed. You made a good decision to follow the rules of the school and be respectful of your teacher, even when you really didn’t want to. Thank you for doing that.

Allie: You’re welcome.

SC: Allie, I have a question for you. You said that Mrs. Fisher told you that the school rule was that all students had to go straight to their classrooms in the morning. She is right about that. We do have a rule that we want all students to go to their classrooms so that we know where everyone is. This is a way that we keep you all safe. All of our students are very precious to us.

Now, think carefully for a moment because what I am about to ask you is very important. As close as possible, can you tell me the exact words that Mrs. Fisher said to you this morning when she saw you in Hallway A?

Allie: She said that the school rule is that I have to walk directly to my classroom when I get off of the bus in the morning and that I couldn’t be in Hallway A without permission.

SC: Wow—thank you, Allie. Good job remembering her words. Let me just say this back to you so that I make sure I really did get it all:

This morning, you got off of the bus and started walking down Hallway A so that you could say hello to Mrs. Thomas and give her a quick hug, just like you do every morning. Your teacher, Mrs. Fisher, saw you walking in Hallway A.

Allie: Right. She was in Hallway A because she had to give some Student Council papers to Mr. Smalley.

SC: So you were both in Hallway A even though your classroom is in Hallway B. When Mrs. Fisher saw you there, she reminded you that the school rule was that all kids had to go directly to their classrooms in the morning. You did not tell her that you were headed toward Mrs. Thomas’ room to say hello—you just said “OK” and turned around to go to your classroom. You didn’t show that you were feeling upset at that point. At lunch, though, you started to think about it again and got upset.

Allie: Right.

SC: At lunchtime, did you tell Mrs. Fisher why you were upset?

Allie: No. I got upset in the cafeteria and she wasn’t in there with us. The Lunch Aide told me I could come straight to you.

SC: So Mrs. Fisher still doesn’t know you are upset?

Allie: No. I don’t think so.

SC: Allie, you have done such a terrific job of walking me through everything that happened to you today and I understand so much better now than I did when you first walked into my office. But there is one more thing that’s not quite clear in my mind and I want you to help me think through it. Would you help me?

Allie: I’ll try.

SC: I am just wondering if you think it’s possible that if you had told Mrs. Fisher where you were headed this morning when she saw you in Hallway A—if you had let her know that you weren’t just goofing off in the wrong hallway, but rather you were on your way to say a very important hello to Mrs. Thomas—that she might have given you permission to do so?

Allie: But she told me that I had to go straight to my classroom when I got off of the bus. She would have said no!

SC: You are absolutely right that it is important to Mrs. Fisher that kids follow the school’s safety rules. You know what? Those rules are important to me too because they were made to keep kids safe. I am sure that you are 100 percent correct when you tell me that you heard Mrs. Fisher say that you needed to go straight to class in the morning. Listen very carefully, though, because this is the part that I think might have been confusing for you this morning:

Even though Mrs. Fisher said you had to go straight to class, keep in mind that she didn’t say you couldn’t say hi to Mrs. Thomas. In fact, since you didn’t tell her that you were headed to see Mrs. Thomas, she had no way of knowing that that’s where you were going. And so here is the really important thing I want you to think about, Allie: Is it possible that if Mrs. Fisher knew where you were going in the morning—if you had told her about your morning routine to say hello to Mrs. Thomas—that she would have allowed it?

Allie: I don’t know.

SC: I don’t know either. But I have a feeling. And I think it might be worth checking it out with Mrs. Fisher. Sometimes when kids are upset, they only think about or remember one part of a conversation—the part that made them upset. And the more they think about that one part, the more upset they get. It’s only when kids work on calming their minds and talking about all of the facts in the situation—not just the part that made them sad—that they can realize new things.

I think you made a very smart decision when you came to my office, because by talking things through, you could start to see that you interpreted Mrs. Fisher’s message to mean that you could never see Mrs. Thomas again, when what she really said was that you had to go straight to your own classroom in the morning. What do you think?

Allie: I think we should ask her what she meant.

 

After a brief period in which I helped Allie plan and practice how she would approach Mrs. Fisher about the incident, I accompanied my student to her classroom. When we got there, Mrs. Fisher was surprised to learn that Allie was feeling upset, since Allie had shown no sign of it in class that morning. Mrs. Fisher listened very intently as Allie explained her interpretation of the events in Hallway A that morning. After hearing Allie out, Mrs. Fisher clarified her intentions to her young student--first affirming my hunch that she had been unaware of Allie’s destination that morning and then giving Allie permission to visit Mrs. Thomas’ classroom before school each day as long as Allie  walked straight back to her 3rd grade classroom after the brief visit.

Our third grader beamed. She felt heard and understood. Her worst fears—never seeing Mrs. Thomas again—were banished and at the same time, her fondest wish was realized: her current teacher (Mrs. Fisher) was every bit as caring and as nurturing as her former one (Mrs. Thomas.) 

Might it have been easier for me to send Allie back to class quickly, advising her to "talk it out" with her teacher instead of taking the time to help her get to the root of her misperception?  Sure.  Would it have been justifiable for her teacher to refer back to the school policy that students must go directly to their classrooms each morning?  Of course.  But expediency is rarely the most effective course of action when it comes to truly connecting with a young person and meeting his/her emotional needs.  When we fail to connect with a student emotionally, we lose an opportunity to help her succeed academically, as it is clear that no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.  This is a central tenet of LSCI training and a truism that has guided me in every impactful interaction I've had with a stressed-out child. 

Too often when students, teachers, counselors, and school policies all intersect, the results can be a bureaucratic mess. The letter of the school law can interfere with an adult’s ability to show flexibility for a child’s unique situation. In this incident, however, the adults were guided not simply by school rules but also by the respectful principle that each student has a story to tell and that when we take the time to truly listen to a young person, problem situations can often be managed well.

For more information on the skills of Life Space Crisis Intervention, please visit www.lsci.org 

 *All names have been changed to protect the identities of the subjects.

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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