Do You Dread Coming Home To Your Kids?

by James Lehman, MSW
Do You Dread Coming Home To Your Kids?

“On the way home from work every day, I start getting stressed out because I know that my 15-year-old son will be there waiting, ready to start a fight with me. There are times when I just want to turn the car around and not deal with him anymore, but I know that’s wrong. I’m so tired of the screaming matches and power struggles. What can I do?”

I’ve had many parents tell me how much they dread coming home to their kids after work, or how they feel overwhelmed by the fights and chaos in their house when the kids come home from school. Why is this time of the day often so stressful—and a prime time for acting out? One of the reasons may be because it’s a “transition time.” Transition events are moments when kids stop one activity and start another, or move from one environment to another. It’s also a time when anxiety is high and inappropriate behavior easily gets triggered—you’ll see acting out on the part of kids, and often, arguing and conflict on the part of adults. It’s been my observation that a lot of people react to that in ways that don’t help solve the problem.

Many parents have a fight with their child before they even get in the house, because they’re imagining that fight on the way home. Here's the truth: if you’re imagining a fight, you’re probably going to get one.

As a parent, it’s important to know that kids are very vulnerable to the anxiety of heightened expectations, and the stress to get things done. This is true especially if they have self-control problems. So when kids come home from school, that’s a time to have some structure for them. Remember this: structure is the key to helping kids manage transitions.

Don’t Go Home Ready for a Fight
Many parents have a fight with their child before they even get in the house, because they’re imagining that fight on the way home; if you’re imagining a fight, you’re probably going to get one. Or they’re waiting at the house, already in their corner, prepared to go head-to-head. Here’s the truth: that will just provoke you and upset you more. If you’ve been doing this, know that you’re not helping the situation, and you’re probably unknowingly making things worse.

One way to handle this situation is through soothing self-talk. This is when we speak positively and soothingly to ourselves when we’re anxious—and it’s a very important tool during transition times. So for example, on the way home from work, start to prepare mentally by saying things like, “I can deal with whatever is there. The kids need me right now, and if there’s a problem, I know how to deal with it.” Another thing that I tell people is that once they learn strategies to deal with their kids’ behavior, they should remind themselves of those strategies when they start to get tense. You can say, “OK, if he does this, then I’ll just do that; I can manage it, I’ll be in control.” This helps calm you down and focuses you on what you need to do next.

Train Your Kids to Give You Time to Transition
Adults as well as children need structure to manage transitions. One of the recommendations that I make in The Total Transformation is for parents to have a few procedures set up when they get home. No matter what’s going on, unless it’s a crisis, you should go upstairs, wash your face, put on your comfortable clothes and get settled in. If your kids start bickering or calling to you, tell them you’ll be down in a minute. So the first part of the new after-school, after-work structure becomes, “When I get home, I have to go change and then I’m going to come down and deal with you.” That way, you train your kids to give you time to transition.

Explain this new procedure to your child ahead of time. When things are calm, perhaps after dinner, get together and have a talk. You can say, “I’m tired of fighting every day when you get home from school or when I get home from work, and I want things to be better for all of us. From now on, this is what I’m going to do when I get home. I’ll be able to help you a lot more if I have a few minutes to relax and wash up first.”

If your child ignores the new procedure, follows you and tries to draw you into an argument, I recommend you do the following: say what you have to say to your child and then turn around and continue to your room. This conversation shouldn’t turn into a fight. Remember, the way to defuse fights is to avoid them. If you’re fighting with a child, you’re feeding their sense of power and you’re treating them like they’re your equal. Instead say, “I told you that you have to wait till I come down,” and then go upstairs. Don’t ask them anything or prolong the discussion. If they act out while you’re upstairs or curse you behind your back, then you should have a consequence ready and give it to them.

If your children start bickering, keep walking. Don’t give that behavior power. If they know they can bicker to get you to turn around, they will. Don’t get sucked into, “Mom said this; no, mom said that.” Just keep walking and let them bicker. In reality, squabbling is a way for them to download any anxiety they’re feeling. Bickering never killed anybody. (Unless you’re an adult and have to listen to it—then it’s murder.)

Use Structure to Manage After-school Chaos
Let me be clear: when kids come home from school, there should also be a structure in place. They may have snack time and unwind for 15 to 20 minutes. (I’d say half-an-hour should be the max.) Let them do whatever they want to do, and then the structure should kick in.

In my view, all time should be structured. That does not mean you should be rigid and inflexible but it does mean that morning and after-school time should be planned out. So for example, 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. is when we wash up and put on clothes, 7:30 a.m. is breakfast time, and so on. In the evenings, there should be dinner time structure, homework structure, and chore time structure, which should be defined by timelines and activities. Free time should also be structured. After homework time, your child should have free time to do what he would like. He can IM, play video games, watch TV. That way, kids learn that there are responsibilities they have to take care of—not when they feel like it, but during the structured time. It also gives them the idea that the adults have control over how much “free time” they have. And it gives you a better supervisory method to figure out what your kids should be doing.

By the way, when you impose a structure on after-school time, don’t forget that free time should be built into it. If your child wants to do something, you can always say, “That’s fine, right after you do your homework and your chores.” Keep things structured, and with chores and homework first, then allow your kids an hour of free time to watch TV or play video games.

It’s very important that your child knows what this schedule is going to be. I recommend that parents post it prominently, like on the refrigerator. So that way, instead of yelling or getting into a fight, your child knows that when it’s 6:30, he’s supposed to be in his room doing his homework. In other words, the structure helps manage the kids more than your personality does.

“What should you be doing right now?”
Once you have your structure in place, it’s much easier to redirect your child back to the task at hand. You’ll often hear teachers asking their students the question, “Where are you supposed to be right now?” I think this is a brilliant tactic for parents as well. You don’t get into a lot of “Why’s” or excuse-making with your child this way.

So, let’s say you have imposed a new structure in the evening, but your child is texting instead of doing homework. Here’s how you can use this technique:

You: “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”
Your child: “My homework.”
You: “Then go to the table and do it.”

Not, “Why aren’t you doing it,” or “How come you’re not doing what I asked you?” Avoid those kinds of questions, because you’re just asking for excuses. As a parent, your position is, “You’re supposed to be doing homework—go there; You’re supposed to be doing the dishes—go there.” Starting a question with the word “why” in these kinds of situations just raises anxiety. When anybody is asked “why,” their first thought is that they’ve done something wrong. Let’s face it, nobody ever says, “Why did you do something right?” Once they’re asked a “why” question, kids start getting defensive and manufacturing excuses in their heads. Instead, ask them, “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”

My Child Pounces When I Come in the Door
If you have a child who’s ready to argue with you or complain about his siblings as soon as you walk in the door, you have to address this behavior with him in a frank, private conversation when things are calm. Sit down with that child and say, “Listen, when I come home, I have to go upstairs and change. I’m going to say ‘hi’ to you, but then after a minute, I’ll go wash up and then I’ll be ready to talk.” If you have one child who needs some attention, you can assure him by saying, “When I come downstairs, I’ll talk to you first.”

This way, instead of feeling like he has to compete with his siblings or fight with you, you’re letting him know that he’ll get your attention first, as soon as you are ready to talk.

Kids Who Act Out Severely
Some children are verbally or physically abusive, and literally start ripping the house apart once they get home. Let me be clear: they need a much more aggressive behavioral management system than we can can talk about in this article. That child cannot be left alone, and if they are, you’re probably going to suffer damage to your home and property. There’s not a lot of middle ground. You can teach him how to manage that behavior, but again, that takes a much more rigorous program. I would suggest that parents in this situation seek out resources to help them with this kind of destructive behavior.

Acknowledge That You Can’t Control Your Child When You’re Not There
Let me begin by saying that it’s never safe to leave a child unsupervised because children are by nature impulsive, unpredictable and prone to risk-taking behavior. I understand the reality in many families is that older children and adolescents are left unsupervised because of the parents’ work schedule. I recommend in those cases that the child should have a written emergency plan. This plan should include neighbors they can go to for help if needed, emergency phone numbers, police and fire department, practice exits from the house should there be a fire, and a safe place for everyone to meet if there is a fire. The adults should review this plan with their kids regularly.

If your child spends part of his or her day alone, it’s important to understand this simple rule: you cannot control your child when you’re not there. But what you can do is enhance their ability to make certain choices.

Here’s how that works: let’s say your kids get home at four o’clock and you get home at 5:30, which means they have an hour and a half of unsupervised time on weekdays. When you structure up the night, you tell them that the schedule includes homework time, chore time, dinner time, free time, and bed time.

Because there are only so many hours in the night, your child will have to learn how to use time more effectively. So you can say to your kids, “Look, if you choose to watch TV or play video games before I get home, that’s up to you. Keep in mind that you have two hours of homework a night. If you choose to use your free time before I get home to goof around, that’s fine. But then homework is going to start as soon as I get home.”

You follow up by saying, “If you do an hour of homework at that time and you can show me that your assignments are done, then you’ll have more free time later. So, it’s up to you how you’re going to use the non-chore, non-homework time after school. You can use some now, or you can use some later. But if you want to watch a certain TV show tonight, get your homework started early.”

This way, you are training your kids to schedule things and structure things. With this method, problem-solving skills are learned by your child, as well, because they’re learning what to do with their time and how to make good choices.

Remember, if your child doesn’t have an internal structure to manage his behavior, he needs to have it imposed upon him externally. Part of maturing—for everyone—is taking that external structure that’s been imposed upon you from birth and internalizing it by the time you're in adolescence. So instead of arguing and getting into power struggles with your child when you come home, you’ll be able to lean on the structure you’ve set up to manage your child’s behaviors. You’ll be able to point to your schedule instead of getting into a screaming match with your child—and that’s the name of the game.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


A very helpful article. The introduction of structure in our home has brought more calm and less excuses when tasks need to be done. Thank you for the gift of substituting "Why" questions with "What" questions. I have fallen into the "Why" trap too often and have only experienced endless defiance and skewed logic from my kids. Just call me 'Skewered-by-logic' for short!

Comment By : Michael T.

We are raising our 19 month old grandson. We want to start out so we don't run into the same problems we have had with his mother. What can we do now to set the foundation so we don't need the total transformation on down the road?

Comment By : joy

As a grandmother raising a 13yr old female with a tendency towards ODD, I need new techniques...therefore enrolling in the Transformation program. Meanwhile, the articles help. I used to save my day allottment of Advil for 4pm..BATTLE TIME. Recently I've changed my attitude and found something positive to address when she comes in the door. It has helped. Now I'll try the structure.

Comment By : Old dog learning new tricks

This was a good reminder on dealing with these situations. I too have fallen into the why trap. Gotta avoid it. I'll try the structured schedule but, it will get complicated. Tuesday with piano lessons after school will be different from Wednesday with Cub Scouts after dinner. I'll need a calendar to keep it all straight. What happens when the transition occurs in the car when I pick him up from school or day care? I've got nowhere to go! What kind of structure can I enforce in the confines of the car?

Comment By : Brian T.

I'd like to know your suggestion(s) on dealing with the child when I'm picking the kids up from school on my way home from work. My daughter is always fine, but my ODD son tries to instigate an argument almost immediately upon my arrival at the school or in the car on the way home.

Comment By : Lisa G.

I think the information in the article makes a lot of sense, and could be successful in my family situation except for one thing: I MYSELF am not very structured! With the exception of a work schedule which defines my time, my after-work time just flows. I'm not good with structure. So,it's a case of 'the blind leading the blind'.

Comment By : bde

My daughter died of breast cancer last year leaving her sister,her sister's husband and myself with 5 kids to raise in addition to her sister's 2. They(her 5) were never disciplined and it was a nightmare. With help from the behavior systems that are available we are learning many tactics. Your advice is right on track! Although we have therapists and behavior assistants, we still study your material as reinforcement. We have purchased your "Total Transformation" and are happily utilizing it! Thanks! Exhibition Skating Coach.

Comment By : Skating Coach

Nice article but what do you do when you impose a consequence and you child (in my case a 16 yr old boy) eventually learns to live w/ out the things you took away and has very little motivation to want to get them back. Is truly lazy and will sit in a house for 8hrs a day w/ no tv or computer or any video games and literally sit and do nothing (also will not shower)... how do you handle that situation?

Comment By : Fay

* Dear Fay, You ask a very good question about consequences and it’s one we hear asked all the time. “My child doesn’t care about consequences”, etc. I have a few ideas for you. First, in the heat of the moment, when you have given a child a consequence for their behavior, it is normal for them to be upset and to “say” that they don’t care. I would not put much stock into that remark. The second suggestion I have for you is to look at how you’re setting up your consequences. One of the many terrific ideas that James Lehman has in his program is to give a consequence for as short a time as possible. By doing this, you build an incentive for the child to do what you have asked of them to earn that privilege back. If you simply take something away for a long period of time, they will learn to live without it, just as you say your child has. Let’s use homework as an example. If you set-up a structure where your child does homework from 4:00 to 5:00 PM in order to earn his privileges that night, you’re putting in place a system that has incentives and consequences. It includes a task that must be done in order to earn privileges. If your child does his homework that day, he earns his privileges that night. If he does not, he loses privileges for that night only. Tomorrow is a new day and he has an opportunity to do his homework and earn privileges that night. Try setting up short-term goals and short-term consequences and I think that will help to motivate your child. Keep in touch with us and let us know how things are progressing. Good luck.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Wow... Great advice, I never thought of it that way. I will give that a try. Thank you so much!!!

Comment By : Fay

My boys are always getting "no" for an answer. They are 15 and 12. What does one say to "why can't I get my ear pierced, most of my friends have their ear pierced, AND so do you!!" I don't think boys with ears pierced are bad, I just don't like it!! Am I being too old fashion? Should I just give in, and go against my own ways, The 15 year old sees how the 12 yr old gets allot more at his age than what he was allowed to do when he was 12..I'm so confused, I want to be fair but I'm so tired of all the arguing and stupid bickering, any suggestions?

Comment By : Theresa

* Dear Theresa: I hear you that you feel confused, but I like how you weigh your decisions. Decisions are rarely black and white or easy to make. When you consider your child’s input, current trends, what your own experience tells you, you’re using tools for your decisions that your children do not have available to them. That’s why it’s ultimately up to you to decide many things for them while they’re still young. And it’s a very good goal you have to do your best to be fair. But fair doesn’t mean ‘the same’. The kids are different people, living in different times at given ages, and having different personal and environmental resources. James Lehman recommends that you don’t become too concerned with fashion, as long as it’s modest and not violent, but to instead focus your limit setting on behaviors, such as curfew and study times, etc. He refers to this as ‘setting firm outer boundaries’ for important behaviors but recommends keeping flexible about choices that are less important. However, piercing and tattoos are usually permanent and because of that, a parent’s life experience can help kids set limits on these ‘fashion’ desires. Whether or not you want to allow piercing is up to you. If this is something you are completely against and would never support, you might say,” You don’t have my permission to do this.” Trying to explain it to a teenager to their satisfaction is a losing battle. Don’t forget, James says “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” They will usually be able to combat any argument you present. You might try, “When you are an adult, you are free to choose then, of course, if you wish to have piercings.” Thanks for your great question. It’s one that many parents have. Let us know if we can be of further help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have a 15 year old son who, when told "no", just can't seem to accept it. He doesn't act out he just offers me other options. Like "well,then what if ....". I find myself screaming at him about his selfishness. How can I make "NO" mean NO?

Comment By : Denege

When I even ask my 16 year old if he has homework, he goes berserk! He screams at me that he was going to do it but now that I brought it up, he is not going to do it. After I go to bed he will drink coffee and stay up til 2:00 or 3:00 am to try to finish, but falls asleep so goes to school with nothing done.

Comment By : Helpless

Sometimes i feel so fustrated. Once i come home from work my daughter is all over me. She expects me to cater to her in everyway...she complains how dinner is not ready for her, that i'm her mom and that it should be done for her. And once i walk through the door she is relaxing and one the computer on facebook..its like once i walk through the door she just needs to find someway to be controling. I don't get it. I get so down i just want to go to bed and not see anyone for the rest of the night. I hate fridays.

Comment By : Ihereyou.

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