Do Displacement Activities Help Children Cope?
Christopher Philip

In research led by Giulia Pecora, Sapienza Università di Roma, Rome, Italy it was found that children aged 2-4 increased rates of displacement behaviours including touching the face when they were prohibited from touching an attractive toy, but that rates of displacement behaviour did not predict the rates at which they could successfully maintain their prohibition.

The researchers were forced to conclude that displacement activities in children are a “functionless by-product of motivational conflict rather than a strategy that children used to inhibit their response to an attractive stimulus.”

In other words, children exhibit displacement behaviours to distract or pacify themselves in lieu of breaking the rules.

For the purpose of the study, displacement behaviours included:

– Beating any part of the body or objects on a surface
– Swinging/floundering the whole body
– Swinging/floundering any part of the body
– Performing unusual facial expressions
– Scratching own body
– Biting/Pretending punching oneself
– Putting fingers/hands in the mouth
– Biting own lips
– Assuming contorted postures
– Yawning
– Rubbing own eyes
– Drumming fingers on table/chair/legs
– Intentionally touching some part of the body

“Thus, displacement activities,” say the researchers in their paper “do not facilitate children’s self-regulation in this context, but they may signal that participants are involved with an ongoing decision-making process in order to comply with the experimenter’s prohibition, even in her absence.”

So, in short, to read children (and adults), one might monitor various displacement activities which should fall in line with underlying discomfort felt. This is consistent with previous assumptions about various self-touching body language and it’s link to emotional situations. When one sees a child or adult performing various self-touching nonverbal signals, then it can be assumed that one is dealing with an emotionally charged internal dialogue.


Pecora, Giulia; Elsa Addessi; Gabriele Schino and Francesca Bellagamba. Do displacement activities help preschool children to inhibit a forbidden action? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 2014. 126: 80–90.