Why Kids Behave Badly with Their Parents

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An interview with Dr. Heather Wittenberg

The scene is the same for many of us: the report back from school, daycare and playdates is that our kids are little angels.  Not a behavioral issue in sight.  So how come when we pick them up or reunite later in the day, their horns come out?  Aren’t we the ones they love the most?  Shouldn’t they be overjoyed to see us, with smiles and cuddles a plenty?  Child psychologist Dr. Heather Wittenberg helps us understand why our kids behave so much worse with us than anyone else.  — Christina Montoya Fiedler, TMC Web Content Producer

Why is it that kids often seem to be on their best behavior with everyone except their own parents?

Children save their best — and worst — for us, as parents. They’re their “true selves” with us. It takes energy to “be good” and follow the rules — especially for young children — so when they get home, they let it all hang out. The good news is that their deepest love, affection, admiration, and goofiness are reserved for us, too.  Here’s an example. When I’d pick up one of my sons from preschool, he was just fried from all the action. If I asked him anything or tried to interact, he’d totally meltdown. I was upset because I figured something was wrong. Then I accidentally discovered that if I just left him alone while we drove, by the time we got home, he was ready to talk (after a snack, usually). Then, I’d get the most adorable stories of who was doing what at preschool, and all the activities. Of course, his teachers always thought he was the best — but with us, he needed a gear-down phase before he could really get comfortable and let it all hang out.

What’s going on when all you hear is how great and happy your kid is when you’re apart and then when you’re together, they’re a nightmare?

You’re being punished for leaving them. Sure, once they’re settled into daycare they have fun. But deep down they miss you and are angry that you left. So you get punished upon your return. Expect it and take it in stride. If you sympathize but don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s likely to subside more quickly.  Remember, their feelings of abandonment are super temporary. They get upset intensely and quickly, and just as quickly they’re having fun again. This helps parents know that each good-bye meltdown is usually just temporary. Talk about the feelings, and remind them — not only when they’re upset, but also during other “safe” times that “we say goodbye and then we say hello again. I always see you after school.”

How important is a daily routine in keeping these “resentment” feelings at bay with your children?

Routines help a lot. One of my kiddos loves it when I use lipstick (which I rarely do other than for her) and give her a kiss on her arm. She won’t wash it off there during the day, and can see “evidence” of me when she misses me. Parents can also have reunion games or routines to get back into the swing of things. Develop unique little songs or hugs or silly handshakes to signify the long day is over and you are together again.

Laughter is also very important as it helps blow off steam and it also helps to get those “happy” neurotransmitters and hormones circulating again. I always get down on my kids’ level, close to the ground, and try to check in with his mood at the moment. Does he need space? A hug? Maybe he just needs to say goodbye to friends or tell me about his day? Follow your child’s lead at reunion time. If there is acting out, try out a little game. Some kids respond well to a little good-natured teasing — others don’t. One of my kids starts to laugh when I imitate her grumpy expression. (But it makes my son madder! So I don’t do it with him. He’s the one who needs “space”.)

What is the after school/pickup time meltdown all about and how can we get our children to express their feelings in a more positive way?

After holding it together without us for all that time — a release is necessary. Expect it, don’t make a big deal about it, and don’t take it personally. Set limits if needed, but only if it’s going on a long time and/or it’s extreme.

Accept that the negative feelings are there, and normal. They hate to be away from us. They also love school. Kids have lots of conflicting feelings, and you won’t be able to talk them out of them, even if they’re not rational feelings. Accept the strong feelings, show you can take it from them, then draw the line if it starts to escalate. “I know you’re mad about being away from me today, but I can’t let you hit your sister. Let’s have a little time out until you can calm down.” Then wait and see if dinner and a bath helps, and maybe try to ask what happened at school.

What is the best way to diffuse an “acting-out” episode?

It’s best to prevent it in the first place by expecting it, not taking it personally, taking it in stride if it happens, sympathizing, and then changing the subject to something more positive when they’re ready to let it go. Set limits if necessary so they know they won’t be rewarded for extended freak-outs.

If your child is being destructive or hurting someone, you need to step in to stop them. If they’re rolling around on the floor screaming and crying, pick them up and hold them to prevent getting hurt. Use time outs to help press the “reset” button. Don’t get emotional about it, just state the rule “No hitting the baby. I know you’re mad, but I wont let you hurt anyone. Take a 2-minute time out and when you’re done, can we talk about your feelings. Or maybe just have dinner? I think you might be hungry.”

Also, never say “You’re OK” when they’re not.  I cringe when I hear parents saying that. It’s so invalidating. Simply saying, “I know you’re mad or sad,” goes a long way.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg lives in Maui with husband and her four children. She is a licensed psychologist with a PsyD degree, and a specialty in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers — and parents. She is the sole writer and producer at BabyShrink, which is dedicated to making childhood easier and of course, more fun. Like most moms, she wears many hats including parenting writer, national speaker, child development expert, and social media strategist. She is a member of the Experts Advisory Panel, an official Pull-Ups Ambassador, and a former writer for Nick Jr.’s Brain Builders Boot Camp.

This article was originally published July 12, 2012.

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn