Smiling when you are angry is not necessarily a sign that the child or young person in your care is feeling self-satisfied and smug. Many children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life due to abuse and neglect are unsettled by heightened emotion in adults. For them, it is associated with something bad happening. From an early age infants smile in order to induce positive connection and emotion in others. The Still Face Experiments show that infants will smile in order to regulate connection and responsiveness from their caregivers. Viewed in this way, smiling may very well reflect an instinctive behaviour that serves to induce positive emotions and care from adults. Far from feeling self-satisfied, the child or young person is feeling unsafe and smiling is an instinctive reaction and strategy for relieving anxiety and restoring feelings of wellbeing by regulating you.
At other times (and, perhaps, at the same time), children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life really are satisfied when you you are angry at them. They crave the feeling of being understood in relation to their experience. If they are angry and successfully make you angry, they feel understood and acknowledged in their experience. They also feel able to influence the emotions (and, hence, behaviours) of others, which is profoundly reassuring.
As referred to in previous blogs in this series about messy rooms and destroying their belongings, it is important to understand and respond to the real reason for behaviours of concern. Only then will the child or young person feel heard and regulate their actions in consideration of their worth and their relationship with you.
If you accept what I have laid out above, you will see that smiling is the child or young person’s way of feeling safe and understood; notwithstanding that their behaviour appears counter-intuitive and self-defeating. Remember from my previous post about destroyed belongings, need trumps reason. The child or young person may always smile when others are angry, but we should see this not as a signs of self-satisfaction or smugness, but as relating a need to feel safe and heard in relation to their experience.
So, support them to feel competent through games and other activities and acknowledging their experience in your words, actions, and shared emotions. In time you might expect to see them as less preoccupied with controlling the emotions of others and more likely to facilitate understanding of their experience through the words that they use to communicate about themselves.
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