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8 Strategies for Working with Grieving Children
10 CEUs 8 Strategies for Working with Grieving Children

Section 12
Defense Mechanisms in Children's Grief

Question 12 | Test | Table of Contents | Grief CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

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On the last track we discussed grief and explaining separation.  The four types of separation we discussed on the last track are parental rejection, incarceration, mental illness, and alcohol and drug abuse.

On this track we will discuss displacement reactions.  Two topics regarding displacement reactions that we will discuss are why displacement reactions occur and identifying patterns and triggers of displacement reaction. We will also discuss the I Think, I Feel, I Want technique, used as an alternative to a displacement reaction.  As you listen to this track, you might consider the application of the ideas and decide to play this track in an individual or group session.

Two Topics Regarding Displacement

Topic #1 - Why Displacement Reactions Occur
Jason was a good example of a grieving child with a displacement reaction. Jason, age 6, was sent to live with his grandmother after his mother died of cancer. Two years later, when Jason was 8, his grandmother died and Jason was put in foster care. I felt these transitions in home and care coupled with his grief were essentially why Jason’s displacement reaction began to occur. That year, Jason was placed in a special class for behaviorally disturbed children after teachers at his school reported numerous incidents of anger displays. 

When Jason began to act out in school, he was asked to move to a small adjoining time-out area that was regularly used as part of the behavior modification program in the class. Unlike the other children, however, being asked to sit in time out set Jason off. He would explode in a rage. Jason’s therapist, a colleague of mine, stated that she spoke with Jason’s teacher regarding the grieving child’s displacement reaction.  Jason’s teacher agreed to experiment with a different kind of time-out for Jason. Jason’s foster parents were asked to buy him a bath towel, letting him pick the color. 

Jason’s foster parents ran it through the wash a couple times so it would smell like home, cuddled him in it a few times over the weekend, and then sent it along to school with him. Jason and his teacher found a safe place for him to keep his towel, and when he needed a time out, Jason was told to sit with it at his teacher’s side. Jason was able to respond cooperatively to this alternative to time out. Jason still displayed anger, but having a physical reminder of home and the knowledge that his teacher wouldn’t send him away helped Jason to cope with his displacement reaction. 

Think of your Jason.  Could a reminder of home help your grieving client to cope with his or her displacement reaction?

Topic #2 - Identifying Patterns and Triggers of Displacement Reaction
You may have experienced that children like Jason who have a displacement reaction may react negatively if they are asked to give up or share their room, their bed, or their place at the table.  They respond poorly to discipline that involves sending them to their rooms or asking them to remove themselves until they can behave.  To identify and evaluate patterns and triggers of displacement reaction, you may find the following seven questions to be helpful.  As I read these seven questions regarding identifying patterns and triggers of displacement reaction, think about the grieving child you are treating. 

Could these questions help identify a pattern with your client? 
-- Question 1. What keeps happening?
-- Question 2. How does it start?
-- Question 3. What happens next?
-- Question 4. How does the child seem to feel at the beginning and at the end of the exchange?
-- Question 5. How does the parent, guardian or other adult feel at the beginning and at the end of each exchange?
-- Question 6. How and when does the problem behavior stop?
-- Question 7. After the behavior subsides, what needs to happen so that both child and caregiver reconnect positively or at least neutrally?

Do you agree that if the patterns or triggers that lead to the displacement reaction can be identified it becomes more possible to find ways to discourage negative behavior?  

For example, Caitlin, age 11, grieved the death of her father shortly after her parent’s divorce.  Caitlin not only acted negatively when she felt displaced, but also when she needed to enter or rejoin a social situation. Caitlin’s teacher stated to me, "I’ve watched her over and over on the playground pulling that ‘poor me, I’ve hurt myself" routine. Caitlin will stand on the sidelines watching the others play. You can watch her get frustrated. Then she loses control, and pushes someone or pretends to trip and get hurt herself." 

While working through Caitlin’s grief, I found that it was productive to spend time with her focusing on her assertiveness in order to give her an alternative to her otherwise common displacement reaction. Would you agree that helping Caitlin know how to find a place for herself and say what she wants could help her to overcome her displacement reaction? If the grieving child that you are treating is using a displacement reaction, consider using the following technique to help the child implement assertiveness.  

Technique:  I Think, I Feel, I Want
In the I Think, I Feel, I Want technique, I practiced with Caitlin ways in which she could use assertiveness to replace her negative displacement reactions. 

-- Step 1 - In the first step of the I Think, I Feel, I Want technique, Caitlin made the statement, "I think I should be able to play, also." 
-- Step 2 - Second, Caitlin made an ‘I Feel’ statement.  Caitlin stated, "I feel like I have the right to play with the other kids." 
-- Step 3 - Third, of course, was Caitlin’s ‘I Want’ statement.  Caitlin stated that she wanted to play with the other kids. 
-- Step 4 - In addition to the obvious three steps of the I Think, I Feel, I Want technique, the fourth step is to implement the need in an assertive statement. 

Caitlin devised two assertive statements that she could use next time she wanted to play with the other children.  "Can I play, too?" and "It’s my turn." Caitlin’s teacher later stated to me that even though Caitlin still showed a displacement reaction sometimes, Caitlin was starting to become more assertive. 

Would you agree that this assertiveness could help start Caitlin’s positive work through her grief? Are you treating a grieving child who may need to work through other problems such as a displacement reaction before grief processing work can begin? If so, consider playing this track or relating these case studies to your client.

On this track we have discussed displacement reactions.  Two topics regarding displacement reactions that we discussed are why displacement reactions occur and identifying patterns and triggers of displacement reaction. We also discussed the I Think, I Feel, I Want technique.

On the next track we will discuss delayed grief work.  We will discuss how grief gets delayed and techniques for delayed grief work.  Three techniques we will discuss are talking, cemetery visits, and drawing.

- Fordyce, L. (Aug 2009). Overcoming Loss: Activities and Stories to Help Transform Children’s Grief and Loss. Community Care, 1782.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Boerner, M., Joseph, S., & Murphy, D. (2020). Is the association between posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth moderated by defense styles? Traumatology. Advance online publication. 

Sala, M. N., Testa, S., Pons, F., & Molina, P. (2015). Emotion regulation and defense mechanisms. Journal of Individual Differences, 36(1), 19–29. 

Stutey, D. M., Helm, H. M., LoSasso, H., & Kreider, H. D. (2016). Play therapy and photo-elicitation: A narrative examination of children’s grief. International Journal of Play Therapy, 25(3), 154–165. 

What are the two topics regarding displacement reactions that we discussed? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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