To be a parent is one of life’s greatest gifts—and greatest responsibilities. Parents are their child’s caretaker, protector, and provider, but parents also learn valuable life lessons through their children. Having children redefines our purpose. Kids teach us so much about who we are, and it can lead to epiphanies about our own childhood and give us insight on who we want to become.
Needless to say, along with the beauty of parenthood comes its many challenges—and one of them may be your child’s behavior. Before you became a parent, you may have felt that having children could not be that hard because you would care for them and they would subsequently listen to you. Well, if your kids are anything like mine, then you probably experienced a rude awakening after becoming a mom.
The reality of parenthood can be quite different from our early expectations, especially as children begin to assert their independence. At times, you may even notice they start acting like you, and that may not always be a pleasant realization! Of course, children deserve to act like children, but it is sometimes hard to tell when their behavior warrants additional support.
Something that may baffle parents is why their children behave a certain way in public (e.g. at school, with other family members, with their nanny) versus how they may behave in the privacy of their own home. For example, perhaps they are attentive, good listeners, and well-behaved in public, but the moment they are at home with you, all of that goes out the window as they start screaming, destroying your house, and ignoring all of your pleas to be respectful. Is this normal? We reached out to cognitive specialist Beatrice (Bea) Moise for expert advice to help us answer this burning parenting question.
Below is a comprehensive explanation of the potential differences in children’s behavior in public compared to how they act at home. We hope this helps parents remove some of the guilt and blame they may feel when their child acts in certain ways in particular settings.
1. Is it normal for a child to behave a certain way at home and act differently when they’re at school, daycare, with grandparents, other caregivers, etc.?
My mom was sharing with me that she was in awe of a child she was observing at church who was very quiet and respectful and listened to the service. The child was with another family member, not their parents, and was clearly not at home. I began to wonder how my own kids would act in that setting with me. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume they certainly wouldn’t be acting in that reserved manner. So is it normal for kids’ behaviors to change when they’re not with their parents? According to Bea, yes, it is perfectly normal because children’s behaviors change with each environment.
Bea shared, “Children pick up on the different behavioral expectations that are required of them. Unfortunately, the home environment is where most unwanted behavior occurs, which is entirely normal.” Therefore, if your child acts like a little angel in public or with other people but then behaves in what you consider a disrespectful and unruly manner at home, this is absolutely normal and to be expected.
2. Does it mean a child is “misbehaving” if they are (more) challenging at home versus outside the home?
What adults may consider “misbehaving” behavior may just be their children demonstrating age-appropriate behavior that tests boundaries with individuals with whom they feel safe. Nonetheless, it can be upsetting to see two different sides of your child and be on the receiving end of “unwanted” behavior at home. According to Bea, there may be several explanations for this “misbehavior,” which is actually them just being children.
Bea said because “the school environment can be more structured and expectations are clear, most kids will reduce unwanted behavior. The consequence vs. reward system is something children can easily pick up at school.” On the other hand, the home environment may not have that same structure, which may result in children being unsure about expectations set upon them. Additionally, “children can hold certain emotions while they are out, and when they get home, they release those feelings in a place where they feel more emotional safety, which the home environment might provide.”
3. How can a parent/caretaker address a child’s behavior at home when they are acting out verbally and/or physically?
Parents want to raise good humans. Parents are also learning as they “parent” and it may not always be easy to understand why their kids behave in certain ways, which may go against their expectations and rules. Bea reminded us that “all behavior is communication.” Even the unwanted behavior is a form of communication used by our children to connect with us.
Bea suggested, “If you want your child to listen to your advice as the parent, you must listen to what they are communicating with their unwanted behavior. Connecting with your child is the most successful way to reach them and change their behavior.” The next time your child displays any unwanted behavior, consider connecting with them to listen and understand what message is at the core of their behavior, which may include feelings of fatigue, hunger, or simply missing you.
4. Do you have any suggestions on how to address a parent’s frustration when a child behaves “nicely” in public but challenges the parent at home?
It’s important to remember that social situations can be overwhelming for children. This may result in the child “shutting down,” which may appear as being respectful and “good” behavior. However, once they are at home, they feel a sense of safety to release those feelings and display unwanted behavior with the parent(s). Bea wanted to remind parents “that your child’s behavior is not a personal attack [on you.]” Consequently, parents should not respond defensively. “Before you address the child’s behavior, lead into the situation with responding vs. reacting.” Instead, Bea wants parents to:
- Take a moment and step away.
- Go back to your child later when you are not frustrated.
- Pause before reacting.
- Remember that not everything needs to be addressed at the moment.
Here is more about responding vs. reacting, directly from Bea below:
Hopefully, this provides some space and guidance for parents to process the unwanted behavior so that they can more clearly see what the child is actually attempting to communicate.