Addiction - Behaving to Avoid Stress
Throughout these Newsletters the consistent premise has rightly been that the effective management of stress underpins all successful behaviour management programs. That is, for a teacher to present an effective learning environment it needs to minimize those conditions that threaten the safety of all members of the classroom.
Of course, there will inevitably be situations that disturb this desired state of calmness and when this happens we will act to alleviate that stress. In a perfect world we would have learned to take actions to relieve that tension but there will always be circumstances that are beyond our current competence and it is under these circumstances that we have a choice, we either learn how to deal with this new situation, the ‘adult’ response or we act just to get rid of the stress. This short-term reaction is at the heart of addiction and that addiction includes the compulsion to act in inappropriate ways.
There are three ways addictions are manifested; through the use of substances that alter the impact of the emotion, the use of activities to distract thoughts from the problem and the third is focused on stress that has its source in personal interaction; this I call ‘people addiction’.
The use of substances is long been used to alter emotions. When anyone mentions addiction the first thing most people think of is the classic drug addict and I would argue that at the heart of the reason these chronic addicts are around is their early childhood abuse. I have worked with children who are suffering from such addiction and they will invariably tell you that the first time they got high/drunk/bombed-out was the first time they felt good about themselves. Never be under the illusion drugs don’t work but the problem is that like all addictions the more you use them the more the need for the effect and eventually the need for the drug becomes the primary problem for the user.
The second type is activities addiction. This is where the person becomes so focused on a task or hobby they can’t think about anything else. You can see this with over-the-top sports fans who live every moment for the team. Or with kids, when a new craze sweeps the country you see those who become obsessed with it. While ever I am fully engaged I will not have to feel the emotions from my ‘shame’.
You see activities addiction in the work place. Years ago, when I was formulating these ideas I discussed them with a colleague. He stopped me and said – you are describing me. I had suspected he was somewhat engaged in such addictive behaviours as he was having difficulties in his life but was enjoying success at work. When I started to expand my thoughts he cheerfully told me it was alright, he had just enrolled to study for his doctorate. He achieved his doctorate but lost his family.
The catch with activities addiction is summed up by those who become workaholics. The extra output they achieve because of the hours and the intensity they put in to their work results in their promotion. Soon they are in positions where the workload becomes the problem, like the substance they need more and eventually they break down.
The last type of addiction is what I refer to as people addiction. In reality, this is most likely the reflection of how the children learned to survive in the abusive relationships in which they were raised. As with other addictions these behaviours are the result of previous experiences of success in alleviating unhealthy levels of stress. This ‘people addiction’ is the product of behaviours that worked directly on the stressor, the ‘abusive other’.
The first type of people addiction is that of overt control. The tactic is to stress the other person much more than they stress you. In a sense, you abuse them straight back and in such a way they will stop their behaviour. This can be done through all types of aggression ranging from physical attack, making fun of the other person, discounting their worth, any form of attack on their physical or psychological safety.
People will take this form of defense when they hold a position they perceive as being superior to the other person. This could result in overt behaviour against a younger sibling, a different gender, usually female or someone you perceive to be in a ‘lower’ social ‘class’.
Overt action can make the original aggressor stop but this does not provide protection from future attacks and as with all addictive strategies, there is a long-term cost. The aggressive behaviour pushes others away and so the danger is you become distant from others. Those who use overt control limit their opportunity to have productive relationships; they become isolated, frustrated and bitter.
The reverse approach is that of covert control. This strategy consists of being so nice and cooperative towards others they will have no reason to attack you. A common phrase used by those who adopt the covert position is ‘I don’t care – whatever you want to do’. These children are nice to be around because they are sensitive to your needs and do whatever they can to make sure you get them met. They avoid unpleasant situations at all costs.
They take up this position for the same reasons as those who take up the overt position, because they consider themselves less than the offending other. The problem is their own needs are never met and resentment and anger will build-up but remain internalized. This adds to their feelings of worthlessness.
The final position is that of resistance, the students choose to ignore the source of the attack by not getting involved with any of the other students or activities. They rebel against any organised activities and are absent a lot. They will avoid anything that has the potential to cause stress.
The cost of opting out of interactions with others is the loss of opportunity to get any needs met. These students become isolated and marginalized.
So, what to do? Dealing with situations that threaten your composure requires you to control the impact of these ‘attacks’ and to achieve this you need to develop strong boundaries (see Newsletters - ‘Teaching Practical Boundaries’ 31st July 2017 and ‘Dealing with Difficult Kids’ 4th September 2017). Successful management of all stressful circumstances relies on the honest response to the questions that underpin all responsible behaviour. These are:
- What is really going on?
- Who is responsible?
- If its my actions then take responsibility and change that behaviour
- If it’s the ‘others’ behaviour then understand you can’t make them do anything and you must behave in a way that has the best chance of getting your needs met in the long term
- Let go of this relationship?
Understanding how to produce effective boundaries distinguishes adults from children, despite their real age and teachers rely on this ability to survive in the most difficult of classes.