Why some kids truly think that anger equals love
By Jeanne Williams


“It just seems like he enjoys it when people get mad at him!”
“She seems to be doing everything she can to push my buttons, as if she really wants negative attention more than positive attention.”

Foster parents are often mystified when they see this type of behaviour in children who have a history of abuse or trauma. We know that children who cannot get positive attention will settle for negative attention if that is all they can get. Could it be that some children actually like the feelings they have when someone is angry at them, and do their best to seek out this feeling? How could that be?

It helps to understand this phenomenon if we think through the history of a child in light of their developing brain. Let’s look at Jemmy’s story. His parents had a bitter and contentious relationship from before he was born until their divorce when he was five.  As a result, his early childhood was characterized by regular occurances of anger and fighting between the most important adults in his life.

When Jemmy was a baby, his parents often responded to his cries with angry shouting, sometimes even shaking him or pushing him away. As he grew into a toddler, not only did he continue to receive angry responses to his own behaviours, but he also watched his parents yell at each other, occasionally even throwing things or hitting each other.  This constant anger, received from the very people who gave Jemmy food, milk, clean diapers, and other nourishment (including hugs and snuggling), created a set of neural pathways in his developing brain that said "expressions of anger must equal love."

Let’s move ahead a few years. Jemmy is now a 10-year-old boy who has lived in a calm, warm and nurturing foster home for almost two years. If you asked him, Jemmy would tell you with conviction that anger does not equal love, but an hour later you might see him push his foster brother off the trampoline and then smile when he yells at Jemmy in anger and hurt, or he might say something so cutting to his foster mother that she is left in tears. Why does that happen on such a regular basis, when Jemmy says he knows better?

Remember the neural pathways that were created in Jemmy’s early years? The ones that said “anger = love”? Those pathways are like ruts in the road. The more you ride your bike through the same muddy rut, the deeper it will be. A young developing brain is a lot like a muddy road – very impressionable to whatever bike is riding over it. As the brain gets older, it gets a little like a dirt road that has dried out. You can still create a new rut in the road, but it takes a whole lot more riding to do so.

The “ruts” (or neural pathways) in Jemmy’s brain still tell him that anger is equal to love. So he may believe you when you tell him otherwise, but when he’s bouncing on the trampoline, and desperate for love and acceptance from his foster brother, his brain gives him the message that seems most obvious: “push the kid off the trampoline!” And when the foster brother responds with angry tears and yells rude things back at Jemmy, Jemmy’s brain recognizes the feeling that
occurs at that moment – the very same feeling he used to get from his own mommy and daddy years ago. And the “rut in the road” becomes just a little bit deeper.

So what does Jemmy need now? We want to create a new rut in that road, that says that we don’t want to make people we love angry at us, and in fact, it really feels good when the people we love are pleased with us and love us back. Creating a new rut in a hard dirt road is not an easy thing – it takes lots of time, lots of repetition, lots of patience.

A place to start would be to empathize with Jemmy. Tell him that you understand that he wants to feel good – most people do. And his brain has been telling him that getting people angry is a good way to achieve that. Genuine empathy is an important first step in this process.

You could also help Jemmy to think a little farther, past that initial “good feeling.”
“So what happened when you pushed your foster brother off the trampoline?”
“He yelled at me and called me names.”
“How did that feel?”
“Really good!”
“OK. So then what happened?”
“I lost my privilege to use the trampoline for a week, and I had to do my foster brother’s chores for a whole week.”
“And how did that feel?”
“Terrible. I hated that.”
“Hmmm. So it felt good at first, but then it didn’t work out so well.”

You get the idea. Another thing you could help Jemmy do would be to think about other ways that he receives love. “How did you feel when you showed your project to your foster father last week, and he was so proud of how hard you had worked, and how creative you were?”

If you have a child like this in your home, you probably already know that you will have to have conversations like these many, many times before it really begins to sink in. Be patient, and keep it up, and one of these days, you may hear your words coming back to you – and then you will know that your child really gets it.

In addition to cognitive understanding, there is an even deeper way to make changes to neural pathways, and that is through experiences. Those damaging neural pathways were created through repeated experiences of being yelled at by someone who was supposed to be the primary nurturer and provider of love in a child’s life. Back to the analogy of the muddy road, the road is less impressionable in a 10-year-old than it was in the first few years. But it is still impressionable. Every time an important person shows that child love in a positive and affirming way, new pathways are created, and the brain begins to say “I thought the anger felt good, but this [new experience] REALLY feels good!”

If you have a Jemmy in your home, explain to him about the pathways in his brain, give him positive and loving experiences many times each day, and when he pushes people’s buttons, keep reminding him (gently) that making people angry may feel good to him, but there are things that feel much better. Teach him ways to ask for positive attention and affirmation when he needs it, and when he gets it, remind him how good that feels. If you use the analogy of the bike on a muddy road, remember that it’s so easy for the bike tires to slip right back into those old ruts, and getting angry doesn’t help things any. You just have to keep lifting the tires out of the old ruts and setting them on the new pathway. Ride on the new ruts enough times, and you will create new and healthier pathways to where you want to go.

© 2008 by Jeanne Williams

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