Not long ago, my 7-year-old daughter was playing a game on one of her favorite child-friendly websites when all of a sudden, the computer froze up. She tried practicing patience, assuming the squirrels who power our older machine were running slowly. She attempted a system re-start -- my stand-by method for fixing any piece of technology. She even walked away for a bit in an effort to soothe her frustrated nerves. Nonetheless, when I came downstairs, fresh from a shower and ready to start a great family weekend, her answer to my question of, "What would you like for breakfast, sweetpea?" was an angry "Nothing. I'm not eating. I don't like anything we have here! Why can't you ever buy waffles?"
Each complaining sentence was louder and more irritable than the one before it. The lingering coolness of my shower quickly heated to a hot, red flush over my cheeks. My automatic reaction was to mirror my daughter's temperature: "What are you mad at me for?" I wanted to shout. Some of the other involuntary thoughts that rushed to my mind included:
- Fine! Don't eat. But don't bother telling me you're hungry in an hour.
- If you don't like what we serve for breakfast in this house, you can go without eating!
- Why don't you just go spend the morning in your room? I don't deserve to be spoken to in that way.
There were a few other names and phrases that flooded my senses within the first five seconds of her waffle rant, but in what I would like to think of as a moment of clarity (though it was probably only a matter of me debating which unhelpful reaction to voice), I just stared at her silently.
Fortunately for both of us, that moment of quiet allowed my daughter the necessary pause to re-gain control of her emotions and to softly say, "I'm sorry, Mama. I was just really frustrated at the computer and I took it out on you."
From eagerness to start the day to a flash of anger to pride in my child's emotional maturity (and relief that I had muted my own automatic thoughts), my emotions in that single minute of time took an intense roller coaster ride. I call it the Nothing Comes from Nothing journey.
Have you ever been in a situation with your child where, "out-of-the-blue," they seem to want to fight? You witness (and are often the recipient of) a spike of sudden and unexplained anger. Because the emotion seems unfounded (and since it is usually dumped out on you), your emotions are instantly triggered and you, too, are inspired to quick anger. A heated conflict ensues, a dent is created in your relationship and both of you feel bewildered about the whole situation.
One of the most common self-defeating patterns of behavior among young people is this 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 and the rest...is history. Opportunities for healthy self-expression are lost. Relationships are damaged. Both parties lose.
How can parents handle this destructive dynamic? Is there a "cure" for displacement? As with most effective parenting strategies, the answer is that management begins at a personal level. When your child explodes in a sudden and seemingly unfounded fit of anger:
1. Pause for a Moment
Hold your reaction. The most human thing you can do is mirror his behavior and respond with equal anger, but this will only serve to escalate the conflict and you'll miss an opportunity to teach your child something about effective anger expression.
2. Recognize that "Nothing Comes from Nothing"
Dr. Nicholas Long, founder of the LSCI Institute, taught me this truism, and it shows up in my parenting and personal interactions again and again. Most people don't spontaneously combust. If your child is having a big reaction, be willing to look beyond his surface behavior and figure out what is motivating it.
3. Drain Off the Emotion
The first stage of Life Space Crisis Intervention, 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. "Drain Off" is accomplished through such de-escalation skills as active listening, supportive non-verbal communication and a whole lot of patience.
4. Understand the Timeline
When kids are flooded by emotions, they often lose track of what made them so angry in the first place. Once your child has calmed down to the point where he can talk about what is going on, ask open-ended questions (e.g. How were you feeling when you woke up this morning? What was going on before I came downstairs from my shower?) to encourage your child to recount the timeline of what 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 parents 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 a 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?
The use of questions empowers your child to develop insight into his self-defeating behavior and to feel competent in developing solutions for the situation. 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 parents, 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 disengage from destructive conflict cycles and respond instead in ways that build insight in children and foster positive relationships with the ones we love.
Signe Whitson, LSW is the Chief Operating Officer of the LSCI Institute, mother of two daughters, and author of How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens. For more information and training inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com or Follow Signe on Twitter @SigneWhitson.