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Four Common Defense Mechanisms Used By Stressed-Out Kids

Scratching beneath the surface of kids' behavior.

Red-faced and whimpering, the little boy kept shouting, “I don’t care what he says about me!” and insisting, “I’m not crying! My allergies are just making my eyes water.” If it wasn’t so entirely heart-wrenching to see this sweet little pre-schooler in pain, it would have been almost funny to listen to his mammoth efforts to deny the emotions he was experiencing.

This young child is not at all unlike older kids and even many adults who go to great lengths to mask inner pain with defensive words and behaviors. Parents, teachers, caregivers, and friends who recognize verbal façades are best able to support a child’s true feelings. Here are four of the most common defense mechanisms employed by kids in stress:

1. Denial

“So what? Grades don’t mean anything to me. I didn’t even study for that test anyway.”

Disappointed by a low grade on his math test and worried that his classmates might think less of him, a third-grade boy denies his feelings by claiming not to care. Too often, kids like this one come to believe that expressing genuine emotion would make them appear weak or “stupid,” so they mask their true feelings with an “I don’t care” façade. Caring adults who look past the flippant statements and scratch beneath glib surface behavior may be able to genuinely connect with a child who wants to do better academically, but needs a little extra support.

2. Rationalization

“I didn’t tell the teacher because I knew she wouldn’t have done anything about it.”

A 10-year-old boy justifies punching a classmate, in retaliation for the classmate taking his math book without asking. His dismissive and seemingly remorse-less justification earned him a day of suspension and a bad reputation among the school teachers and administrators who were in the best positions to reach out to this young man. Beneath the “tough kid” bravado was an abused child living in a chaotic home. If only the youngster had possessed the verbal skills to tell someone where all his pain really came from. If only an adult could have recognized the pain behind his punch.

3. Conversion

“I have a headache. I need to lie down.”

For many children, stress manifests itself in bodily symptoms. The un-athletic child’s predictable headache before gym class and the nausea prior to a dreaded band performance may well be more than a child just “f-ache-ing” illness to get out of something he does not want to do. In kids who experience anxiety-related physical symptoms, the discomfort is genuine, but it is rooted in emotional need rather than in anything for which he needs to visit a doctor. When adults correctly decode and address the underlying psychological pain, the physical symptoms usually abate.

4. Displacement

“I’m sorry. I took my anger out on you, but it was my friend that I was really angry with.”

Children sometimes transfer their emotional reactions to a substitute when it cannot be directed at the person who caused it. Often, the real source of the pain is not considered “safe” (e.g., an abusive parent who might retaliate physically or an untrustworthy friend who might tease) so the child displaces her anger onto another. In the example above, the child realizes her act of displacement and has the emotional maturity to admit the error, but more often than not, kids are not even consciously aware of their displacement. They simply know that they are overwhelmed by emotion and need to discharge it on the nearest safe target.

What makes the dynamic of displacement especially challenging is that the person who receives the anger is normally the child’s ally, but in the aftermath of having been the target of undeserved anger, he becomes temporarily unavailable—just when the child needs him most. When adults are able to recognize displacement and not personalize the anger, they are in the best position to help the child understand their true anger trigger and respond to it more effectively.

More from Signe Whitson L.S.W., C-SSWS
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