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When Sad Looks Mad

Family Adoption Stories Bonding & Attachment Post-Adoption Transitions

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  Written by Sharon Bradshaw on 03 Nov 2015

Many times, children from hard places tend to act mad, when that is not what they are feeling at all.  Why is that?  The answers are really quite obvious when we remember where they came from.

A child, who has lived for an extended period of time absent of the love and care of a family, generally did not have a caring adult in their life that helped them to identify and express their feelings. Even if a child from a hard place did have the ability to name their feelings, the adults in their lives generally did not have time to listen and validate the child’s feelings.  Feelings became confusing and scary things that the child developed mechanisms to avoid.  One of these coping mechanisms is to turn sad into mad.

When something happens to a child from a hard place that makes them feel sad, they feel overwhelmed and out of control.  Sadness reminds them of the feelings that accompanied their lives when they were abandoned, abused, or neglected. In order to protect themselves from these feelings, they will often turn sad feelings into mad feelings.  Whereas feeling sad makes them feel victimized and scared, feeling mad, makes them feel strong and in control.  And, strong and in control feels much safer than victimized and scared.

I remember times during the first months and years after our daughter joined our family, that she would have her feelings hurt by a friend or sibling.  I would see a brief reaction of sadness, but that would quickly turn into a look of anger in her eyes, accompanied by her stomping out of the room. There were even times, before she had a grasp of English, when she would scowl and literally growl in response to something that really should have elicited tears and sadness.  At first, it seemed so strange to me, but when I realized that she was protecting herself from a feeling that was too scary to deal with, it helped me to know how to respond.

So how should parents respond when a child turns sad into mad? First remember that in that moment your child is operating in survival mode.  Speak calmly to your child and help her to calm down before trying to talk about what is happening. When a child is in survival mode, your words will be falling on deaf ears.  Once she has calmed, speak truth to her scared heart.  “Honey, you look angry, but I think that your heart is really sad.”  Encourage her to let go of her mad feelings, and reassure her that you will stay with her until she doesn’t feel sad anymore.  Focus on connecting and nurturing, so she doesn’t feel so alone and scared in her sadness.

As much as we would like to, we cannot always protect our children from sadness.  We can, however, be with them in it.  It is our job as parents to help our children find appropriate ways to express and navigate their way through their feelings.   In time, they will learn that being sad is okay because mom or dad will be there to help them through it, and sadness won’t last forever.




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