Why does my child smile when I am angry?

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.

The CARE Curriculum

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

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About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
This entry was posted in AAA Caregiving, Adoption, Fostering, kinship care, Parenting, trauma informed and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why does my child smile when I am angry?

  1. Joseph J Poznanski says:

    Why is it that from an incredibly early age, before our cognitive functioning has been fully established, we as infants smile to positively impact the other so that we can get the same positive reaction from the other in a reciprocated exchange? I believe that even as infants, we innately respond to our ‘ideal self’, which is internally ‘known’ to us on an unconscious level. Our ‘ideal self’ is already built-in, ready to be shaped by our contemporary value-based social exchanges. Right from the beginning of our conscious existence, we unconsciously seek social communication to shape our ‘ideal self’ in a positive functional social manner. As we develop, through exposure to our external social world, we acquire a nuanced understanding of social conventions, behavioural norms, valued roles, and models of ideal others and their lives. We introject these learned experiences as internal understandings of how we would like to be and how we would like to be viewed by those who have entered our social orbit.

    But we also have our archaic ‘real self,’ an imprint of our genetic endowment, cultural heritage, and the collective unconscious. Our ‘real self’ is deeply unconscious, yet it holds inherited cultural and value-based representations of our unique characteristics and personality. The ‘real self’ is why we will attract people who share our values and our inherited cultural ways of being. Our ‘real self’ is also why we will attract people who fall in love with us and form deep emotional attachments and lasting relationships with us, as they vaguely but pleasantly sense the uniqueness and sincerity of our ‘real self.’ As growing teenagers and adults, we will feel more ‘at home’ with the people around us, who share similar cultural values and a similar historical psychic blueprint; that is, in Jungian terms, our common ‘collective unconscious.’

    However, the most critical aspect of the human self is the ‘perceived self.’ Our ‘perceived self’ is based on our past affective and behavioural experiences of interacting with our primary caretakers—people who are part of our “here and now” conscious, expanding social world. Whilst the ‘real-self’ implicates existential phenomenological value-based aspects of our existence, the ‘perceived self’ operates within, and is confronted by, the demands of our evolving and expanding social world. We need positive messages from our immediate social world so we can feel accepted and loved within it. The greater the unity between the ‘perceived self’ and the ‘real self’, the more centred will be the pivotal point of the ‘ideal self.’ The pressure of this balancing act appears to fall downwards upon the foundational ‘ideal self,’ which attempts to find the mid-point of tension between the ‘real self’ and ‘perceived self.’ A healthy, positive, and mature ‘perceived self’ will realise that the ‘ideal self’ has to do with being moral, ethical, constructive, productive, and capable of unconditional love.

    When a child smiles in response to an angry parent, often such a smile reflects the child’s negative ‘perceived self’ that is confirmed by the parent’s expressed anger. “I am bad”, “my ‘ideal self’ is unattainable”, and deep down beneath that ‘exterior smile’, there is fear of not being lovable at all. Also, there is a sense of incoherence between the three integral parts of the self.

    Your article resonated with me Dr Pearce, and in my mind, it has confirmed to an extent my idea based on Carl Rogers’ theory of the organismic struggling human self towards self-actualisation.

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