Angel Child or Devil Child? When Kids Save Their Bad Behavior for You

By

Teen girl smiling at her mother

Have you ever heard someone talk about how well-behaved your child is and thought in disbelief, “Excuse me? Are you talking about my kid?”

While we usually enjoy hearing good things about our children, being told that your child is an angel by others can be confusing and frustrating when she’s out of control at home.

During parent coaching sessions, we frequently hear from parents whose kids save their bad behavior for home. It’s a common problem.

It’s one thing if your child acts out with everyone, but it’s a completely different thing when it feels like her anger is directed at you and only you.

On top of that, it’s very easy to feel like there’s something wrong with you—and that you’re alone in all of this—when you’re walking on eggshells around her while everyone else is singing her praises.

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Don’t Take Your Child’s Behavior Personally

When your child directs all her bad behavior at you, it feels personal. You might start asking yourself if you’re crazy or wondering if your child hates you.

But know that kids don’t intentionally do this. It’s not like they get angry at school or their friend’s house and think, “I can’t wait to get home so I can just explode and scream at my mom!” It doesn’t happen like that.

Instead, in most cases, it’s not a conscious process at all. And it’s not intended to hurt you, even if it feels that way.

Why Kids Save Their Worst Behavior for the Home

Kids who are well-behaved in public generally have a desire to please teachers and other adults and to be liked by them. The positive attention they get in public serves to reinforce this good behavior and is enough to motivate these kids to keep it together in situations that would normally make them come unglued if they were at home.

In other words, their positive behaviors have been rewarded most frequently and consistently in public situations.

You might be thinking, “I reward my child at home. I give him praise and recognition when he does well, but it makes no difference.”

If that’s the case, then consider this: kids act out at home because they know that they can get away with it. Home is a safe place to act out. Home is a place where kids feel secure showing their ugliest behavior to adults. At home, they know that you will still love them and that they will still get their needs met even if they act out.

In contrast, outside the home, kids know that bad behavior won’t be tolerated for long. Outside the home, they understand that inappropriate behavior has significant consequences and that it may lead to outright rejection.

It takes a lot more to be rejected by family. And while it’s good for kids to feel loved and secure, that sense of safety also makes tantrums at home more likely.

If you think about it, adults behave similarly. Most of us have had heated arguments and have said things to spouses that we wouldn’t dare say to our bosses or coworkers. We’d probably get fired if we did.

Indeed, we all save our worst behavior for the ones we love the most.

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Kids Gain Power by Acting Out at Home

Acting out pays big at home. And it pays more than rewards or praise—it pays in power.

James Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation child behavior program, explains that “Children study their parents for a living,” and if your child acts out at home but not in public, she’s figured out that she can overpower you with her tantrums and anger.

If the tantrums and anger are an ongoing problem, it’s because they are having their intended effect, which is to get the child what she wants.

This is frustrating because you naturally begin to wonder, “Why does my child behave for her teacher but not for me? What am I doing wrong?”

Here’s the truth: it’s not helpful to look at parenting in terms of wrong versus right. That implies that you are to blame, and blaming isn’t helpful.

Instead, it’s better simply to ask whether you are being effective or ineffective.

You Are Doing Better Than You Think

The good news is that if your child behaves well in public, you’re doing better than you might think.

For example, children who behave well in school or other public settings have demonstrated that they have the skills it takes to effectively manage frustration, listen to instructions from adults, deal with limits, and so on.

You probably taught your child these skills either directly or indirectly. She’s simply choosing not to use these same skills when she’s at home because acting out at home is just as effective for her.

Create a Culture of Accountability

If your child behaves well at school but not at home, your home lacks a culture of accountability. Therefore, if you want your child to start behaving better at home, then start building a culture of accountability today. Your child needs to know that she is accountable to you and that her behavior will not be dismissed or tolerated any longer.

By working toward a culture of accountability, you will see significant changes in your child’s behavior at home in relatively short order. It takes commitment and hard work on your part, but it will dramatically improve the dynamic of your family.

Here are some tips to get you started creating a culture of accountability in your home so that your child behaves at home as well as she does in public.

Work on One Behavior at a Time

It’s very natural when you start making changes to feel like everything needs to change immediately. But trying to change everything all at once is counterproductive. It’s better to focus on just one or two behaviors in the beginning.

What I recommend to parents during our parent coaching sessions is that they make a list of the key problem behaviors and rank them in order from most troublesome to least. Start with the one highest on the list that you feel you can tackle. And then stay focused on that behavior until it improves.

Set Clear Expectations With Your Child

Prepare your child for the changes. Tell your child that things haven’t been going well and that you are going to start making some changes to help everyone in the home get along better.

State your expectations about the behavior on which you have chosen to focus. For example, you might say:

“Jake, you get rude and verbally abusive when you don’t get your way. That’s not okay. There’s no excuse for abuse, and it won’t be tolerated any longer.”

Then tell your child that the next time he has an outburst that you are going to walk away from the conversation. Tell him you won’t talk to him when he is abusive. And tell him that there will be consequences later.

One crucial rule for parents to follow here is offered by James Lehman in The Total Transformation program. James says, “What you say has to be what you mean, or what you say means nothing—it means whatever the person chooses to hear. And if you give these kids these mixed messages, they learn that what you say means nothing.”

In other words, if you tell your child you are going to do something and then you don’t do it, nothing is going to change. When you tell your child what is going to happen from now on when he gets abusive, you must be prepared to follow through, or else you will end up undermining your efforts—and your authority.

Focus on Skill-Building and Coaching

If your child behaves well at school and in other places outside the home then you know that she has some sound life and problem-solving skills. But what works for your child in one setting doesn’t always work in another.

Sit down with your child and ask her whether she ever gets angry or upset at school or at her friends’ houses. Let your child know she does a really good job of handling it when she’s away from home and ask her what she does to manage herself so well. Encourage her to do the same when she gets upset at home. Or talk about some other options that might work, like listening to music or taking a time-out before getting to the point of an outburst.

Don’t take it for granted that your child knows what to do to manage her behavior. It can be difficult for some kids to see the big picture and transfer their existing problem-solving skills to different situations.

In the heat of the moment, you can give your child a quick reminder about what, together, you thought would be helpful. You can say:

“Hey, we talked about this. You said when you got angry from now on, you would go for a walk. Now’s the time to do that.”

Don’t Participate in Outbursts

Your child has relied for a long time on his acting out behavior to get what he wants. When that no longer works with you, it will take him a while to figure out that the rules have changed. And so he will continue to act out for a time thinking it will work.

Be patient. Just let him act out, but be sure not to participate in the acting out. When your child starts to escalate or argue, just walk away. Go to another part of the home where you can have some space and do something to take your attention off him and his inappropriate behavior.

Attention reinforces the behavior and keeps it going, so the less you engage, the better. Let the behavior die from neglect.

Use Effective Consequences

It’s going to be very helpful to focus on consequences that work. Over-the-top punishments are ineffective—you just can’t punish your child into good behavior.

Instead, the right consequences motivate your child to good behavior. They put you back in control and teach your child how to problem-solve, giving your child the skills needed to be a successful adult.

For example, if your child calls his sister a name, you might restrict one privilege until he goes 2 hours without being rude to her or anyone else in the family. This consequence is effective because it’s short-term and allows your child to earn back a privilege.

For physical abuse or destruction of property, you might put a privilege on hold until your child writes down a plan for what he’ll do differently next time and until he makes amends. Appropriate amends is dependent on the situation, but it could include replacing an object he broke when he was angry or cleaning up a mess he made.

Understand that long-term consequences just don’t work very well. Taking your child’s phone away for two weeks without the opportunity to earn it back just teaches kids to “do time” or to live without a favorite object indefinitely. And it creates animosity instead of a learning opportunity.

Understand that if you take everything away, then you have nothing left to take away the next time they behave poorly. You want them to get their phone back so that you have that you can use their phone privilege as a consequence again!

Conclusion

Will my child ever behave as well at home as he does in public?

The long and short of it is this: your child most likely acts out at home because it gives him a sense of power, and it’s an effective way to get what he wants. And, until now, he’s been able to get away with it.

Establishing a culture of accountability is the solution. A culture of accountability means your child is accountable to you for how he talks to you, talks to his siblings, and treats his family members.

Accountability works for your child in public, and it will work at home if you establish it and enforce it.

About

Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former Empowering Parents Parent Coach with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.

Comments (16)
  • Carole

    My chid is now an adult 30 and married. I’ve always had much difficulty with her behavior towards me at home. I raised two girls as a divorced working women.

    Both children were raised with morals and values. Both my girls meet the outside world,

    Family, friends, authority figures, with respect and dignity. So I do know both girls do understand, and incorporate the skills necessary to be successful and respected by others.

    Now for the “ devil chid” she is bi-polar and is medicated. She unfortunately has had to live with me for 3 years now and she still treats me with disrespect anger and physical outbursts. I am so lost as to why this behavior persists as an adult and do not know what I can do to change her behavior towards me. Any suggestions???

    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Welcome to Empowering Parents. I can understand your frustration and concern. The transition from minor child to adult can be a challenging one for both parents and older teens. We hear from many parents of adult children experiencing similar issues. We have a few articles (including a free living agreement) that you may find helpful here:

      https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/ages-and-stages/adult-children/

  • amy
    Some of this I agree with some I do not. Like them acting out at home because they feel comfortable - yes this I agree with. But there is a difference between a tantrum and a sensory meltdown. A tantrum comes from being overtired or thinking they can getMore their way. A good way to avoid the overtired ones is to keep a routine and develop tools and skills for dealing with overwhelming emotions. Like sensory meltdowns, you can have a cool down space. Somewhere to go - a tent maybe in the house filled with relaxing lights, soft blankets and pillows...music etc. To calm down. If they are already in throes of a meltdown make sure they know where they need to go for it, their own room say where they can throw around their own stuff and then come out when they are able to pleasantly rejoin the family. Tantrums will stop when they get their way. Meltdowns will not and overtired outbursts are unlikely to stop unless steps are taken to calm and get rest. Many times, overtired outbursts arise from a sensory overload from the day rather then a sensory disruption/upset in the current environment. Its also important to remember that with ADHD children once wound up, no matter what the cause it is often harder to calm down.
  • Tami
    Spanking?  Pepper?  Yikes, this is abuse!
    • Nic

      Spanking is not abuse.

      This person is obviously trying to be better. They realize this isn't helping and they are reaching out for help. Not your opinion of is spanking is appropriate in your eyes.

  • Concern parent

    I have a 6 yr old son. He is great in school. The teacher’s praise on how good he is. But he is so bad at home. When we correct him he tells us no, or he don’t care, or shut up. We spank him, put pepper in his mouth, and take away his fav things. Nothing helps. He is disrespectful to all of us. What can I do?

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Concern parent 

      It can be very frustrating when it feels as though your

      child is well-behaved for everyone except you.  You are not alone in this

      situation.  As the article above points out, the fact that he is good at

      school shows that he has the skills to behave appropriately.  Thus, it’s

      more a matter of teaching him how to apply those skills at home that he is

      already using at school.  We don’t recommend tactics such as spanking,

      putting pepper in his mouth or taking his things away, mainly because they are

      not effective at teaching your son what to do differently.  Instead, I

      recommend a combination of https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/

      with your son during a calm time, and using https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-get-your-child-to-listen-9-secrets-to-giving-effective-consequences/ to hold him accountable if he is being disrespectful. 

      Please be sure to let us know if you have any additional questions.  Take

      care.

  • Abar1
    My 13 year old daughter has been difficult since age 2. She has always managed at school behavior wise. But at home we have a very different story. She has misophonia (hatred of certain sounds), ADHD and auditory processing disorder. The sound sensitivity makes her very angry atMore all of us (mom, dad, nana, and 3 siblings). But often times I am wondering is the sound the root cause or is it that she just has no tolerance for her family. She often says she hates her sister closest in age, and now she is saying she hates all of us. The verbal abuse is relentless and sometimes she will become physical and break a door or throw things. My husband and I have been to lenient, which I am just now seeing that not setting expectations has been our downfall. Has anyone dealt with a teen and how to change this pattern before it's too late?
  • chelle65

    I have a 5 year old daughter that

    has been in preschool since she was 3 months old and not once did i ever get a

    complaint on her. She started kindergarten this year and every day I get a

    notification from her teacher telling me she does not listen, she is disobedient,

    she hits her classmates, she won’t stay in her seat, she continually talks

    after being told to stop. She has cut her hair 4 times since in kindergarten, can

    the total transformation help me with this. I am at my wits end and don't have

    a clue how to make her stop. I have punished, taken things away, spanked. Had

    Dr. check herfor ADD and ADHD,  They

    say she is not ADD or ADHD.

    • Darlene EP

      chelle65 

      It is understandable you are

      concerned about your daughter’s behavior at school, especially when it seems so

      out of character. Can you identify anything that has changed recently in her

      life? If not, it could be that she is just having a tough time transitioning

      into the new school or  there is conflict with a student perhaps. It could

      be helpful to try and identify what is going on so that you can help your

      daughter to start to solve her problems more effectively. You can discuss with

      her what is going on just before the acting out behavior starts, and then talk

      about what she can do differently to handle the situation better. We would

      recommend having rewards for trying the new behaviors, rather than punishing

      the bad. For younger children, it is often more effective to use positive

      reinforcement. We know this is not easy to be dealing with. We wish you well as

      you continue to work through this.

  • MHRO
    My 9 year old daughter is a smart child, she is in the gifted program at school.  Her behavior is very pleasant at school, she has the respect of her peers, as well as her teachers.  The parents of her friends always talk about how sweet she is and respectfulMore she is when visiting their homes.  The problem seems to be at home.  She has been temperamental with us since she was a toddler.  She is defiant and thrives on arguments.  Most of her defiance is now put onto her grandmother who has moved to town 8 months ago.  We leave our daughter and son with my mother in law to baby sit about once a week.  There is always a problem between the two of them.  It is a power struggle.  We just don't know how to stop the behavior and pattern that the two of them have with each other.  My husband and I also don't know what to do about the defiant behavior and constant "wanting her way" attitude she expresses at home.  Please help.
    • Marissa EP

      @MHRO So often we hear that our kids behave very well at

      school, in the community, and at their friends’ homes, but at home they can be

      defiant and test limits daily. The good news is that your daughter most likely

      has the skills to problem-solve and make good choices when there are natural

      consequences at stake. Home is a safe place for many kids to test limits

      because they know we will love them unconditionally, however, that doesn’t mean

      you have to change your rules or expectations to accommodate her behavior. For

      kids like your daughter, who thrive on arguing (and many do, because it works

      to solve a problem for them), it will be important to pick your battles with

      her. Focus on one or two of the most disruptive, abusive or unsafe behaviors to

      focus on, and disengage from the other arguments. By setting a clear limit and

      walking away, you are taking the power back because she no longer has someone

      to argue with. James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation program, talks

      more about dealing with power struggles in his article http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Avoid-Power-Struggles-with-Defiant-Children.php. It may be helpful for you and your

      husband to share with your mother-in-law which behaviors you are focusing on

      with your daughter, so she can start disengaging from the power struggles, as

      well. I’ve also included another article written by James, about a http://www.empoweringparents.com/raising-grandkids.php in helping to care for grandchildren, that may be helpful for your

      mother-in-law. Best of luck to you and your family as you continue to work

      through this

  • I have five children and they are ages 8,7,6,4,3. i am needing help with how they act at home. my oldest son is 8 and he gets very hateful with the younger kids. never physical just verbal. My second oldest son is odd and has ptsd and he thrives onMore the negative. my oldest daughter she intaginizes her older brothers and just acts clueless all the time. my youngest daughter is got attitude and wont stay out of stuff. and my youngest son he is crazy always jumping off stuff and randomly punching the older kids because they are all mean to him or push him aside because he is the baby. They all act pretty well in the stores and at school. but here recently its like they are all working against me. HELP please i am a single mother who goes to school an works alot. i want to make my family strong and get along and all have healthy relationships with one another instead of all the arguing

  • My daughter recently turned 4 & her difficult behaviour continues to intensify with age. She has been what i call 'challenging' for me pretty much since birth, we've seen a few professionals & got a lot of advice over the years from various people & despite feeling like we seemMore to be following all the right things to do, i feel like i am failing as a parent? The first half of this article really resonated with me but as i read on, it seemed like the advice & strategies were more related to perhaps older children? She becomes very loud, rude & aggressive a lot & her behaviour seems to escalate no matter what approach we take. Most often she just gets forcefully taken to her room & we've had install a child lock on the door handle on the inside of her room so as we can atleast contain her. And we resorted to this simply because it was becoming dangerous to have her near my now 2.5yo son. Walking away or trying to escape to another room from her tantrums & episodes were fruitless as she would just run after me screaming &  tantrumming behind me. She hits, grabs, pinches, throws stuff, gets destructive etc when she is in this state of mind & nothing seems to calm her down. She does also tend to ask for hugs or affection right the height of her anger/frustraton/whatever she is going through, which of course is infuriating for me as that is the last thing i want to give her when she is behaving like this. Plus i never know whether this is considered as negative reinforcement or if she is just craving for some love & i should do this to calm the situation & here down, just so confused? I'm always questioning the way we do things, trying to work out what we are or are not doing & where we are going wrong. She is a very intelligent & strong willed child, which i know will stand her in good stead when she is older, i just need help managing her now? Thanks in Advance. M

    • Parentingishard
      @Marzi  I wish I could sit down with you, pour a glass of wine and just talk. Our kids sounds identical. Saying that I enjoyed your post would be wrong but yet so right because I don't feel like the only one! I don't have advice obviously, just wanted toMore say thanks for your post.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Marzi 

      We speak with

      many parents who describe similar frustrations and feelings of failure when

      attempting to address troublesome behavior in a child.  Let me assure you

      that, by the simple fact that you are here looking for information and support

      in this matter, you are http://www.empoweringparents.com/Am-I-a-Bad-Parent-Letting-Go-of-Parenting-Guilt.php.  You are not alone in your struggle. 

      It’s worthwhile to keep in mind that it is not uncommon for kids your

      daughter’s age to act out, tantrum, or behave aggressively.  This is due

      to the fact that most young kids have a low frustration tolerance and lack

      coping skills to deal with these strong emotions appropriately.  This is

      not to say that you are powerless to do anything; rather, that it’s

      developmentally normal for her to behave in this manner.  I also encourage

      you to keep in mind that, much as you noticed in your comment, most of the

      materials here on Empowering Parents are geared toward kids who are age 5 and

      older.  Some of the techniques, such as walking away from an acting-out

      child, would be ineffective or inappropriate to use with a younger child for

      safety or developmental reasons.  That being said, we recommend talking

      with your daughter during a calm time about her behavior.  During this

      conversation, we advise telling your daughter clearly and calmly what the rules

      are (such as “No hitting”, “No pinching”, “No throwing things”, and so on), as

      well as what the consequence will be if she breaks the rules.  You can

      find more techniques geared toward younger children in many of our articles by

      Dr. Joan Simeo Munson, such as http://www.empoweringparents.com/defiant-young-children-and-toddlers-parenting-tips-to-help-you-deal-with-a-difficult-child.php and http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Stop-Aggressive-Behavior-in-Young-Children.php Also,

      you had mentioned that you had seen various professionals for your daughter’s

      behavior.  If you are still working with someone locally, I encourage you

      to address your concerns with that person as s/he would have the benefit of

      interacting directly with you and your daughter, and would be able to develop

      an individualized plan to address the behavior you are seeing.  Thank you

      for writing in with your questions.  Please be sure to check back and let

      us know how things are going; take care.

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