If Your Child Smiles When You're Telling Them Off, This Is Probably Why

They're not trying to wind you up. So what's really going on?
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Picture this: your child has hit their sibling and you’ve told them off. But their face isn’t quite conveying the severity of the situation.

In fact, rather than looking glum and full of remorse, they’re giving you a... smile?!

Many of us have been here, so we know it’s hard not to get worked up about your child appearing unfazed by the exchange.

But, according to parenting coach and social worker Gen Muir, there’s a lot more going on behind their smile than meets the eye.

In a TikTok video which has over 290k views, the parenting coach explains how some children tend to smile after hitting or hurting, while others will simply keep doing whatever it is they’ve been told not to do.

And it’s not because your child is lacking empathy or a total psychopath (phew). So what’s really going on here, then?


When kids smile or laugh or look you in the eye and keep doing the thing you’ve asked them not to do. It can be so infuriating. dedefianceotoddlerrpreschoola#parentinghelp

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Why do kids smile when they’re being told off?

When a child is in trouble, they don’t actually want to be in trouble, suggests Muir.

“When a child is disobeying or looking deliberately kind of naughty, what’s actually happening is the emotional demands of the situation are beyond their ability to regulate through – in essence, they’re overwhelmed,” she explains.

Some kids will fall apart when they’re overwhelmed. Some kids will get sillier.

“But they don’t want to be that way. You have to understand that kids are innately good. They’re innately wanting to please us because their survival depends on it,” adds Muir.

So why is your child smiling when you’ve scolded them? Well, it’s probably a coping mechanism.

“One of the biggest things that can be going on when a child looks happy, when they should be scared or sad, is that that smile is a miscue. It’s hiding something much more serious or harder to deal with underneath,” she explains.

“What’s probably underneath? Sadness and fear – 90% of the time, underneath that cheeky smile is sadness and fear.”

According to clinical psychologist Colby Pearce, infants will smile to regulate connection and responsiveness from their caregivers – and it’s likely they’ll then do this as they get older to try and regulate us (their parents) when we’re mad about something.

“Viewed in this way, smiling may very well reflect an instinctive behaviour that serves to induce positive emotions and care from adults,” explains Pearce in a blog post.

“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.”

What do you do now?

If you’ve told your child off and they’re smiling, Muir advises verbalising what’s going on.

So saying something like: “Hey, I can see that you are smiling at me even though I’m really upset you hit your brother and I know that even though you look happy, I think underneath you’re a bit worried and maybe even sad or disappointed about what’s just happened.”

This acknowledgment of what’s really going on will often lead your child to “melt”, she adds, because they feel seen.

And if your child is grinning at you while doing something they shouldn’t – like jumping on the sofa – and you’ve already told them to get off the sofa, she has another tactic.

“You need to make them,” she advises. “Step in and say: ‘I know you’re testing to see what I’m going to do here, but I’m not going to let you jump on the couch. I’m going to stop you.’

“You step in, you physically help them down and you stop them from getting back up.”

She emphasises the need for parents to be “kind, calm, confident, cool and always believing your child is doing the best they can”.