The Archeology of Misbehavior

Children feel loss as a disorienting blast---unexpected and sudden.

Posted Jul 26, 2015

Archeology is the study of human activity in the past. The archeology of misbehavior is studying current behavior to uncover hidden sources. The “ruins” of misdeeds are built upon personality architecture and cultural landscapes.

"The Road to Adventure," oil, FJ Ninivaggi
Source: "The Road to Adventure," oil, FJ Ninivaggi

Hidden sources in psychology include intentional and nonconscious motivations. While too simple to reduce all misbehavior to a few possible reasons, inferring emotional frames of mind leading to significant disruptions is preventive medicine.

Speculations abound about misbehavior: annoyance results in attention seeking; feeling threatened elicits power struggles; feeling hurt or angry provokes seeking revenge and feeling frustrated results because of helplessness or inadequacy.

The Bedrock Beneath Annoyance, Threat, Hurt, Anger, and Helplessness

Loss is an inevitable, re-occurring real-life experience. It poignantly reflects the natural rhythms of happiness, disappointment, distress, needing to let go, and the negative emotions stirred up by these. Loss, however, is the premier life event useful for helping children learn about emotions, impulses, and how to regulate them. Loss together with attachment is the essence of all interpersonal bonds.

All transitions, changes, and separations involve loss and letting go.

Establishing self-regulation results from healthily resolving loss. This is noteworthy because emotions elicited by a loss are typically intense, confusing, and challenging. How a child reacts to disappointment shows his or her developing ability to manage to let go. Disappointment is the focal point that follows all loss. After this, the cauldron of emotions bubbles with mixtures of ambivalence, confusion, hurt, and a variety of angry feelings.

For children and adolescents, a loss may not be felt the way adults experience it. Typically, adults respond to loss by becoming depressed. Children’s reactions are different. Denying a child a treat, routine changes, and separations such as going to bed at night or going to school trigger emotionally provocative losses for children. Restricting screen media time is also felt as a deprivation.

Significant losses include grief over the death of a pet or bereavement over the death of a family member. Loss is perceived when a child or adolescent is aware of not having “things” that others have. Strong emotional reactions accompany such incongruent experiences, particularly sorely wanting but not having. Children feel a loss as a disorienting blast to their status quo. Developmental immaturity makes the loss feel unexpected and sudden. Chronological age and inexperience make knowing how to cope difficult. A previous article on Emotions as a Second Language discusses how emotions are vivid provocateurs. 

Envy as the Premier Spoiler

Unconscious envy is a normal psychological reaction to cognitive and emotional dissonance. The loss is felt as significant dissonance on multiple emotional levels. Such dissonance disrupts mental homeostasis and launches the psychodynamics of envy. When these processes are typical and mild, they are normatively resolved. Such normative resolution of discrepant feelings triggers the reduction of envy by making sense of the discrepancies through implicit resolution. Impulsivity is quelled, and the need for the valued object diminishes because it is felt as less ideal or the hope of having it in the future becomes more realistic.

When the child’s personality architecture is still too developmentally unmatured or traumatized for other reasons, spoiling—damaging and devaluing what was viewed as ideal—is the inevitable outcome of pronouncedly unconscious envious processes. The entire construct of spoiling does not indicate other connotations of the term such as uncritical, pronounced fondness or “doting.”

Pronounced doting or “spoiling a child” typically denotes giving a child all he or she needs plus more in excess. Such overindulgence provides an overabundance that reinforces instant gratification and expecting “on demand” satisfaction. This parent-child interaction reduces a child’s development of patience and impulse control and is to be avoided. Helping children experience loss and not having “everything that other children have” is necessary for parents to understand and tackle in sensitive and realistic ways.

Helping Children Identify and Manage Feelings of Loss

Helping children experience the inevitably recurring feelings of loss and “endings” in positive, rather than traumatic, ways strengthen coping skills. The perceptions of discrepancy that trigger resentment and the emotional management of unbridled reactions can become gradually modulated over time.

However, the only way some children can experience perceived loss is by unconsciously motivated spoiling, a typical reaction to frustration and disappointment. "Spoiling” correlates with defense mechanisms that try to reduce anxiety and cope with conflictual feelings in makeshift yet less than optimal ways.

Spoiling in this psychodynamic sense means marring and devaluing what was once viewed as highly desirable and ideal. This adverse reaction is predicated on unconscious envious processes that idealize what is perceived to be valuable, notably in the face of its threatened loss, and then turn it bad or “sour.” Envious processes are the antecedents of such spoiling misbehaviors. Love and hate are apparent; envy is the mind's hidden module.

Children’s spoiling reactions are expressed in temper tantrums, angry outbursts, breaking things, and oppositional and defiant behaviors. Some children and adolescents may use stealing or other unlawful means to compensate for feelings of being unjustly deprived. These are the “ruins” left behind when loss, disappointment, anger, and spoiling are set in motion. These behaviors are sometimes referred to as “depressive equivalents.”

Loss denotes a need to let go and move forward. Some children can only let go disingenuously by using behaviors that spoil the object or event, hence making it unenjoyable to anyone. Implied here is the sense that what once was possessed will be had and enjoyed by another. An unconscious reflex arises to defeat this envious fantasy: the valued object must be destroyed.

The primary emotions underlying unconscious envy (as discussed in great detail in both Biomental Child Development and Envy Theory) do not allow one to tolerate this abrogation or giving up of what was so dearly held. Because this nonconscious process is automatic and not intentional or manipulative, it is an impulsive reaction. It is not necessarily psychopathological but shows emotional immaturity, impulsivity, and undeveloped forethought.

Strengthening Impulse Control by Offering Choices

Helping children develop self-regulation is supported by example and dialogue. Discussing reasons for rules and limits are part of this. One's example is decisive, but a discussion is valuable. A great deal of effective discipline is helping children to behave within provided guidelines. With younger children, a distraction from the undesired activity may be achieved when a parent couples it with solid options and examples. Distraction is most effective when real opportunities for alternatives and assistance by parental involvement are offered. For example, when children are told to stay away from the stove or stairs, parents can redirect the child to another activity such as coloring by actually beginning to color with the child. Previous articles, Discipline, Nurturance, or Living Example: Which Works Best? and You Are Your Child's First Verb offer concrete strategies for effective guidance.

It is vital for each caregiver to listen thoughtfully and carefully to the other’s thoughts about children and family. If this does not come naturally, it can be developed through practice. In fact, wives often regard listening as a skill that husbands can enhance. A family climate of listening and taking turns optimizes good relations through ongoing teamwork.

Constructing a Secure Personality Foundation

Understanding that experiencing loss (like attachment and bonding) is essential in the life of a child sensitizes parents to the cultural landscape of family life. Seeing this helps parents identify these inevitable experiences “in vivo.” Engaging the child in an interactive narrative helps him and her go through the process of loss: surprise, dissonance, disappointment, frustration, bewilderment, ambivalence, idealization, hurt, anger, devaluation, spoiling, realistic understanding, acceptance, and resolution.

The aforementioned is a means of modulating emotions. It brings feelings to the surface in an articulated, manageable fashion. Labeling and explaining an emotion and linking it to behaviors create emotional literacy. Emotional literacy, in itself, broadens the scope of impulse control and its reflexive automaticity.

Hence, lost emotional civilizations become recovered and reconstructed. For children, this recovery is not only a re-finding but also a new creation---the maturation of previously raw feelings and impulses into more contained experiences. The loss may then be reframed not as a negative gap, but as a pleasant memory leading to the anticipation of some new to-be-gained road to adventure.

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