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

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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 in a variety of places or situations, 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 at 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 do 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 instruction 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, then your home is lacking 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’s going to 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.

If your child calls his sister a name, for example, 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. An 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, how he talks to his siblings, and how he 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.

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