“Michael is so cooperative in class.” “Jenna is one of the most helpful and respectful teens who spends time at our house.” You scratch your head. Wait. Are they really talking about your child? The same child who is moody, easily annoyed, or downright rude to you?
It’s a common phenomenon that kids behave well for others and then it falls apart at home. Angel on the outside, demon at home. The saying is true – you always hurt the ones you love. (You’d think it would be the opposite, that love brings out our best. Alas, it’s often not the case.)
Think of it this way: children of all ages (and adults, too!) hold it together all day, at school, camp, lessons, a job, with friends and other family. The outside world has its own set of rules and expectations. It’s also full of unknowns and natural consequences. The people ‘out there’ are not as loving and nurturing. They will not make excuses for your child and smooth the way. There can be an element of fear, and so, for the most part, children are on their best behavior.
Then they come home and all hell breaks loose.
Home is the safe place, parents the safe people. They can let it all out because mom and dad, while they may get angry, will not reject or abandon them. If they’re nasty to their friends, they may not have friends the next day. When they talk back to a teacher, there is an unpleasant price to pay. Home is safe.
This is frustrating and worrisome for parents. You worry about their future and if they are emotionally prepared to be successful in the world. You want a little peace and quiet. You may compare them to other people with ‘easier’ kids. And then you wallow.
It’s okay to worry and to feel sorry for yourself… for a little while. Staying in that needy place, however, won’t change anything. It will actually make it worse, because inaction leaves you stuck and powerless.
Here’s the thing: you are not powerless! You can influence your child’s behavior. Notice I said influence, not control. Trying to control someone else is like trying to change the orbit of the planets. It’s not going to happen. And the more you attempt to control, the more damage you do to your relationship with your child. Trust is what you’re going for; everything else flows from there.
That being said, just because it’s normal for children to react this way, doesn’t mean you just wait it out. You are your child’s most important teacher about life, relationships and dealing with feelings. Even though they protest, they are waiting for you to model for them how this is done, to provide a ‘container’ for dealing with their out-of-control feelings. The way you respond will impact the frequency and duration of their outbursts.
He’s a demon at home because home is safe.
You must become the emotionally safe place for them to vent and process their emotions. The best strategy I know of is acknowledging, also known as reflecting. This means that you 1) give your child an opportunity to purge those emotions, 2) respond in a way that shows understanding (although not necessarily agreement), and 3) avoid explaining, fixing, critiquing and problem-solving at that moment.
How do you acknowledge and reflect? Use your intuition, empathy and what you know about your child to reflect what you see and hear. The following examples will help you craft your responses:
Your child says, “I hate you! You never let me do anything!”
* Old response “How can you say that? It’s not true. Look at everything I do for you.”
* New response “You sound really upset.” (You can follow up with “Is there something else going on that you want to tell me about?”)
Your child comes home and starts slamming doors or throwing things.
* Old response “We don’t slam doors/throw things in this house.”
* New response “Something very upsetting must have happened to make you so angry.”
You get the idea. Name the emotion you see and hear. In this way you help your child become aware of her feelings and identify them. This helps her develop the ability to regulate herself (self-regulation), rather than being consumed by emotion and lashing out.
One more tip: ask what your child needs or wants from you. This is not problem-solving; it’s trusting your child to know what will help him in that moment. We think we know better, and often it’s the child who intuits what will be most helpful. Ask, “What do you need/want from me? A hug, to listen, to problem-solve, or to just leave you alone?” Do you see how respectful and empowering this is? Eventually your child will have to do this for himself. Start him on this journey to self-awareness as soon as possible.
Will this eliminate negative feelings and behaviors? No, but it will reduce them and their impact. Human beings are emotional beings. We will always have strong feelings and the urge to act on them. How long they last and what we do with them is up to us. Acknowledging their feelings is what kids need from us. They want to know that intense emotions can pass without doing too much harm or being rejected; that it’s normal to have these feelings; and they have more power over their lives than they recognize.
Do you see how we have come full circle in why your children take everything out on you? They are holding in their feelings in the bigger world (angel on the outside), and they have to come out somewhere (demon at home). That somewhere is home and you. What happens at home becomes your child’s foundation for mastering life. Tag, you’re ‘it’.