Dysfunctional Behaviour to Deal with Stress
In a previous Newsletter (Different Expressions from an Abused History 25th June 2018) we discussed how children who are abused in a predictable way develop some form of control over their behaviour. In disputes between individuals, times of undesired border intrusion we all need to develop behaviours that protect us from this aggression while maintaining our sense of security. The following describes three methods that are often developed that may protect us from the abuse but they prevent learning new, effective behaviours that will easily deal with comparable attacks in the future. They may protect us but they will only work in the short term.
The following describes how students make such attempts to protect themselves from the painful feelings that are aroused when their boundaries are threatened. The primary goal of this behaviour is to make the pain go away. This ‘acting to protect,’ is to eliminate the pain that is at the seat of all addictions.
Any time addiction is discussed the most common interpretation is about the addiction to some type of substance, things like alcohol, marijuana etc. The use of a chemical or substance is used to make the pain ‘go away’; you can’t feel it. But this only lasts until the effect of the substance wears off.
There is a second form of addiction where people eliminate the pain by immersing themselves into some activity. By concentrating on the activity you can ignore the problem. Again the relief only endures while distraction lasts. Typical of these addicts are the gamblers addict, or the work-a-holics.
There is a lot more that can be said about these problems but this Newsletter focuses on what I call people addiction. This describes behaviours the students, and teachers use to deal with the source of the stress; that is the person or people who are causing the discomfort. Unlike numbing the stress with substances or distracting attention from the stressor with an activity, this form of addiction attempts to control the source of the stress. This takes three forms, overt control, covert control and resistance.
The first of these is to take the challenge head on. That is if you stress me I will stress you back much more aggressively so that you will stop causing me problems. The techniques to do this take the form of actual physical or psychological attack, threat to attack or use of any form of aggression against the boundary of the other person. So for example, if the teacher wants the student to change seats, that child will adopt a behaviour like making fun of, abusing, discounting the worth of, or any other technique that makes the teacher feel uncomfortable. The student is overtly expressing their feelings, needs and ideas at the expense of others including the teacher and ignoring their rights.
If this works and the teacher backs down to avoid the conflict then the student has protected them self but only until a similar situation reappears. This use of abuse will only work if the other person backs off. If they don’t then you have no-where to go to protect yourself.
The thing is, by being aggressive towards others they distance themselves from others and the resulting isolation will leave them frustrated and bitter. As well they have not learned to deal with this type of attack in an effective way and so will rely on this behaviour every time they are threatened. These are the ‘in your face’ type of kids that can intimidate all but the must skillful teacher.
The other method of control is through being ‘so nice’ to the other person they have no reason to attack you. These sort of people will comply with what the other person wants, always trying to predict potential threats and position themselves to avoid such confrontation. A classic statement these people might make is ‘I don’t care, what do you want to do’? They suppress their own needs to avoid challenging others.
This is a covert approach that, like the overt aggressive pattern may work but will leave you addicted to this form of behaviour and you will not develop the healthy boundaries needed to really get your life under control in a long term, healthy manner.
Students who use of this ‘passive’ approach to handle attacks deny their access to the things they need to develop. They may avoid unpleasant situations but they will be prone to develop anger and a low self-worth.
These students are hard to recognize particularly in a class with a number of difficult, acting out behaviour problems. They remain quiet and cooperative as some sort of insurance against being picked on. Teachers like these kids and its hard to distinguish the tactic of avoiding any conflict with those other nice kids who are well equipped to get their needs met so they are ignored by all but the most astute teacher. But this is dysfunctional behaviour and should be treated that way.
Individuals will have a tendency to adopt one style, depending on their history of abuse but the overt or covert techniques can be used by the same person depending on their relative social power in the particular conflict to gain control. That is, in one situation they will attack the source of their stress and the other they will placate that person. This will in a general sense depend on things like that’s person’s gender, the position in the family and other issues like their social class, the influence of their relatives and the school attended. However, in all social groups there is an understood pecking order and members have a sense of their position in that group.
Another technique to deal with the stress generated in relationships is to deliberately ignore the source. These people refuse to engage in any situation that causes them stress. It is common for teachers to have some students who just refuse to get involved in the lesson. There could be a range of reasons for this disengagement but one that is not easily recognized is that the lesson is threatening the child’s sense of self and they are choosing to ignore the lesson and therefore ignore the stress. It may not be the content of the lesson; it may be the fear of being called for an answer or being placed in a certain seating plan.
These people appear to not respect social ‘rules’; withdraw from interactions with others and by doing this they try to communicate that ‘they are not responsible’ for any potential conflict. If they are ‘not there’ they are not involved and so they avoid the stress that indicates that they are not in homeostatic equilibrium and will remain off-balance in their life.
Take the time and learn to recognize these types of behaviour and while you are at it analyse the behaviour of your colleagues. You will find those who use an overt approach are those authoritarian teachers who are demanding and inflexible. Those who are submissive, using covert techniques never hold the kids responsible for their actions, will let them hand work in late without penalty. Their students are never shown how to be responsible for their actions.
The final type of teacher, the resistive one will ‘fail’ to impose school rules, never participate in staff meetings and generally criticize all efforts to improve the school’s performance. They cut themselves off but in doing so lose the opportunity to enjoy the benefit that participation brings.
Understanding these dysfunctional behaviours will allow you to recognize the motive behind the behaviour and treat it appropriately by providing the structure and inclusion these kids need.