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Sad, Mad or Bad? (or Children Have the Best Poker Faces)

Many of us are not very good at cards because we don’t have good poker faces.

When we’re happy, it’s not hard to tell by the way we act or the look on our face. When we’re angry, others usually know it. And when we’re sad or depressed, we look down in the dumps, sullen and quiet.

But children have the best poker faces. When they’re happy, it’s usually not too difficult to tell. They’re smiling, excited, active and generally enjoyable to be around. However, when they’re angry, they may behave badly; when they’re sad they may seem mad. So how do we know the difference? Are they mad, are they sad, or are they just bad?

Truth be told, there are very few children who are just inherently bad. Most often, children learn to behave badly because that’s how they get adults to respond to them and take notice. Or they may not have the words to express how they feel, and it’s easier to express themselves non-verbally.

Sometimes, children have been exposed to very adverse experiences that are more than they can handle. In fact, repeated exposure to adverse experiences can not only shape behavior, but change brain development. (More on that in an upcoming blog.)

It’s important for us to keep in mind that when children seem bad, they may often actually be angry or sad. They’re not really bad children; we just have to try and understand why they seem that way. We owe it to them to look beyond the poker face.

Here are some things to consider:

  • How about asking them “What’s wrong? You seem to have a lot on your mind and I’d like to help.”
  • What if you said “You seem very angry — I’d like to try and understand.”
  • Perhaps try “I don’t think you’re a bad kid, but you seem unhappy. Can you share what’s troubling you?”

The point is, there are no right or wrong questions if we start with the notion that most children are not bad. They’re just wearing the best poker face they know how. We can help them express themselves better by trying to understand them.

– Joe Shorokey, Executive Director, Alta Behavioral Healthcare


Frustrated with your child’s behavior? Here’s what to do.

Your child’s room looks like a pigsty, you have to nag your daughter to do her homework and you’ve had to remind your son yet again to take the garbage out. And those are the small things. Then you get another call from the school because your son got in trouble, and you find an empty beer can in your daughter’s room. What’s a parent to do?

This is when we want to scream with frustration — we’ve all been there. As seasoned or even novice parents (think of the baby that won’t stop crying or the toddler’s tantrum at the restaurant), it doesn’t take long to realize that frustration is a very real and very difficult part of parenting.

If only our children would learn to do everything we want them to do. “It is amazing how quickly the kids learn to drive a car, yet are unable to understand the lawnmower, snow blower, or vacuum cleaner.” (Ed Bergor). Some of the things our children do will be annoyances, but some will become chronic or worrisome enough that we’ll do anything to make them stop.

The bad news is that it’s not possible to eliminate parental frustration from our lives — just as it’s not possible to turn our children into mini replicas of our own perfect selves (note sarcasm here) or save them from every negative consequence in their lives. In fact we shouldn’t — but that’s for another article down the road.

The good news is that we can learn to deal with our frustration in a way that is healthy for both ourselves and our children. It’s our response to them when we feel that frustration that’s most important. So, here are a few useful tips to consider:

  • Take a breath. As soon as you feel that anger or frustration rearing its ugly head — pause, take a mental time out, and think before saying or doing anything. It may even be best to walk away.
  • Evaluate. Now that you’ve taken a breath, think about this situation. Ask yourself if something else is bothering you? Are your expectations clear and realistic? How important is it to win this battle, as opposed to the war? How can I calmly handle this?
  • Act. Now’s the time to address what’s frustrating you. If it’s something you still feel needs addressed, try to do so calmly and matter-of-factly — setting the expectation and what the consequence will be if he/she doesn’t comply. That consequence could be a time out, or the loss of a privilege such as staying up late or going out, restricted cell phone or electronic use for a period of time, etc. It should never be violence! That’s why the first step — Take a breath — is so important, because it’s easy to let frustration and anger turn physical. The key is that breath!

Being a parent is a great joy, but it also comes with a good dose of frustration. Knowing how to deal with that frustration is the key to a healthier and happier life for you and your children.