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Combating ‘Angry Love’ With Compassion: How To Help Children Struggling With Bad Behavior

(Feb. 12, 2019) Stephen Zwolak (left) and Joshua Carlson (right) discuss how early childhood adversities can have a lasting impact on one’s life.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

If a child faces abuse, neglect and/or household dysfunction early on life, those experiences can later affect how they form relationships with others. Some may resort to treating others in harsh ways, reflecting what they perceive as something that “resembles love,” Stephen Zwolak said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Zwolak, founder and CEO of LUME Institute and executive director of University City Children’s Center, joined host Don Marsh to discuss how early childhood adversities can have a lasting impact on one’s life.

Also participating in the conversation about helping children facing these adversities take care of their mental health was also Joshua Carlson, a licensed clinical social worker in Illinois and associate director of The Knowledge Center at Chaddock.

Kids with challenging behaviors and traumatic upbringings can engage in what Zwolak referred to as “ruthless compassion.”

“It comes through a lot of aggression,” he explained, “whether it's hitting and spitting and kicking and hurting teachers, particularly in the early childhood space. And teachers will have a tendency to react to it as an adult would. And what we're helping teachers begin to understand is that that is that child's only way that they know how to express an emotion that resembles love.”

Carlson added that teachers, parents and guardians shouldn’t take violent or unruly behavior as a personal attack, but should rather understand that a young child doesn’t have the skills yet to verbalize how they’re feeling.

“These huge, strong thoughts and feelings that we as adults would struggle with in being able to communicate to each other, a child at the age of three or four just … can't vocalize,” Carlson said.

“And so they're just doing what they can to cope [and] communicate, ‘I’m not okay right now,’” he continued. “And so it's helping ... early childhood teachers, teachers or foster parents [understand] that it's not it's not personal. It's not that [the children] are lashing out against you – it's their way of communicating what's going on in their internal world.”

Both Zwolak and Carlson reiterated that there needs to be a shift of focus away from a child’s actions and on to how teachers can help develop healthy relationships with a child.

“Children need emotional partners … they don't need a laptop,” Zwolak said. “[They need someone] who they feel safe to express their emotions [around], to be there.”

Carlson compared the practice to a systems theory.

“It’s kind of like a child mobile,” he said. “You touch one part of the mobile – the whole mobile shakes. Same thing happens within a system or group of people. One person makes a change and the whole system has to begin to change because what's going on is different.

“And so if we're working with a teacher and help a teacher to look at how they're engaging with their students differently, their students will change; their students will engage with them in a different way.”

Related Event
What: “Angry Love and Ruthless Compassion” presented by Stephen Zwolak
When: 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Where: Care and Counseling (12141 Ladue Rd. St. Louis, MO 63141)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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