Why Kids Behave Badly with Their Parents


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.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show,” along with our beautiful children’s booksmusichandmade dolls, and more.  Our mission is to “Help Parents Raise Good People” – we hope you will join us!

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn

Comments (11)

  1. HannahT

    My 4 year-old daughter has always had, and still has, crying/tantrum episodes every single day. it’s humiliating. Bed time is so stressful EVERY DAY! And this is not the only time she is out of control.
    I have tried it all; talking nicely, positive reinforcement, games, etc, etc., still, nothing works. We can’t figure it out…we would appreciate your input…I’m all ears!!! Thanks!!


  2. Angie

    I’m concerned about my 4 year old son I’m actually scared of he’s behavior he talks back to me, at times he yells at me of course I talk to him and he goes to time out sometimes or we do other things but nothing seems to work I’m afraid he won’t change
    I feel like I’m just doing everything wrong


  3. Angelina

    My 10 year old daughter and I can have so much fun together. But last summer she cried at summer camp during the night so badly she only lasted 2 nights. We lost $400 (7 day camp). Now she’s embarrassed and asked me not to tell a parent of a new friend why she couldn’t sleep over for a slumber party. I didn’t tell that parent. Now I found out she’s been telling all her friends that it’s because I am “paranoid”…and the sleep over parent avoids me like the plague! What do I do?


    • Abbie

      Angelina, Sometimes our kids just aren’t ready to separate and camp – in an unfamiliar place with unknown people can be a bigger challenge than sleeping at the houses of friends. With your ten year old daughter, from what you describe, this seems to be the case (though make sure something else wasn’t going on at camp that made her uncomfortable). If she doesn’t want to tell friends that she’s not sleepover ready, let her use you as the excuse. You can give her appropriate wording so you are comfortable with it too – like “right now, my mom prefers me to sleep in my own bed.” In time she can revisit the idea with friends or family nearby when she is ready (and you know the environment to be safe) but let her dictate when.


  4. Faith

    Why is it that our son who is 4, is great when he is with one or the other. But when my husband is home with me and the kids, he sometimes can be a nightmare. I swear he does things to get under our skin, we walk around him ignoring his rants and kicking in the floor, I tell him when he is calm we will do what he wanted to do. But he is so head strong. My question is , is ignoring it the best thing to do when he won’t won’t listen to what u have to say??


  5. rebecca

    The word say’s, “spoil the child spare the rod” meaning you can love them & beat that ass!! As they get older they will appreciate that ass whiping cause that very whiping kept them from going to the jail house or robing, saleing drugs, killing someone or even you.. & the list goes on


  6. Patti H.

    My daughter and grandson live with my husband and I. She has varying hours at her job and on the days that she is home during the day the baby (15 months) won’t nap, play contentedly or sometimes stop screaming. He and I have peaceful days otherwise. Is he resentful of her absence? His father sees him every weekend and he doesn’t behave that way when he is here.


  7. Mondays with the Mamas: Positive Parenting

    […] in his life. Which then makes him more agreeable in general, and less prone to pushing limits and difficult behavior.   I find that we reconnect on “Yes Days” and get back into a groove of attunement […]


  8. Student Mom (Jenn)

    Thank you for this. I don’t have meltdowns as such, as I always make a big fuss of the reunion, but the Bunny likes a quiet time while I cook – she draws and colours at the kitchen table and chats away when she’s ready. Bed times, however, are our catch up time. That’s when I find out that she’s been good or was on the naughty step… I never make a big thing out of it… What I am battling with currently is prayers. I’ll have to pray about that myself I think.
    Thank you for a lovely blog.


  9. Michelle

    Thank u for posting. The story of my son & me! Lol!


  10. IamSessica

    I wonder if the same can be said for kids of divorced families where the child acts like an angel for one parent and acts up at the others. I have struggled with behavioral issues with my daughter but her father claims she is very well-behaved at his house. Her father claims it is my fault that I have these issues with her.


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