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Why children behave differently at home

Children at preschool
Credit: iStock.com/skynesher

It’s not unusual to meet parents who say their child is well behaved in day care or preschool or while with relatives, but their behaviour is challenging at home.

‘They’re an angel when you’re not around’, or ‘When you’re not here they behave so much better!’ feels like a hurtful reflection on their parenting. And if the child can behave well for family and care providers, why can’t they behave the same way with their parents – the very people that love and care for them the most?

According to child psychologist and author of the Bonsai Child, Judith Locke, it’s not an uncommon scenario.

Dr Locke believes if a child is showing signs of difficult behaviour at home, that’s because parents may need to revisit routines, respect and behavioural expectations, as well as sufficient consequences.

“Daycare providers and teachers have very good systems in place because they’re in charge of managing the behaviour of 20 or more children. It’s important to note that while they care for the children and like them – they don’t actually love the children in the way that the child’s parents do,” Dr Locke says.

“So, because the child’s carers are not blinded by love, they won’t excuse the behaviour. From their point of view, they have a certain number of children to feed, so if one child says they don’t want to eat right now, or they refuse to sit down, they’re effectively messing up the system. Teachers and care providers need to get the child participating in a system of behaviour to make the day work for everybody.”

But it’s a different story at home where parents might simply back down if their child refuses to do what they’re told.  For example, if a child refuses to eat when dinner is ready, a parent might quickly change plans to suit their child.  Dr Locke says parents might find themselves backing down and telling the child that it’s okay if they eat a bit later. 

“The parent can also provide a much more cognitive process to the situation. For example, they can ask, ‘Why doesn’t my child want to eat?’ In other words, all the love and care they have for their child excuses their behaviour. They’re able to cater to the sort of behavioural differences that the child is insisting on, on a daily basis.

“If the child says, ‘I don’t want to have a bath! I want to watch TV,’ then the parent might just let the child have his way. But for a child care provider, changing the schedule is impossible. The trouble is when kids don’t learn that in the home, then they’re consistently getting their own way or changing the routine.”

Establishing authority figures

Dr Locke believes parents need to establish themselves as an authority figure in the home –a loving parent that’s demanding of appropriate behaviour.

“It’s not about being authoritarian, it’s about showing love by insisting the child learns certain behavioural skills.  If a parent allows a child to behave badly, over time, the parent will find the child very difficult to manage.

“It’s a good idea to set up systems so that your child isn’t defying you all the time and that means you can have a better relationship with them, instead of having to shout at them to do simple things, such as getting dressed, taking a bath or getting in the car.”

It’s not about being authoritarian, it’s about showing love by insisting the child learns certain behavioural skills. If a parent allows a child to behave badly, over time, the parent will find the child very difficult to manage.
Dr Judith Locke

When it comes to children behaving like ‘angels’ in care when they are the opposite at home, Dr Locke believes some people excuse the behaviour by reasoning that the child has had to “manage their behaviour” during the day.

“Some might say that the child has had to hold in their challenging behaviour all day, so that by the time they get home they want to take it out on their family. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. Let’s face it, it’s not as though they’re being sent down to the coal mines for the day! Day care or preschool is a pleasant environment so, by saying the child is taking out the day’s frustrations  on the parents is just justifying poor behaviour,” Dr Locke says.

“Let’s not pretend that a care environment is a horrible environment that children have to endure.  They participate in a wonderful environment with some rules; that’s not a reason to behave badly when they get home. They’re not ‘taking their day out on you’.”

Practical tips for swinging behaviour

What are some practical things parents can do to manage their child’s swinging behaviour between day care and the home?

Dr Locke says, firstly, parents shouldn’t take it personally.

“The five-and-under age group have some difficulty managing their emotions. They’re still developing regulation skills, which means doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. For example, they might not want to have a bath, but they have to have a bath. So they will complain about that and kick up a fuss. But, by insisting that they do whatever you’re telling them, you’re actually helping them develop self-regulation skills,” Dr Locke says.

“If you don’t develop those skills, your child will be behind their peers. It’s also a good idea to get into a parenting system that acknowledges that children have bad days. If you don’t get a system to deal with all the behaviours in a way that’s going to be sustainable, then you’ll have problems as your child gets older.”

And the good news?

“If your child is behaving well at day care or preschool, that shows that they’re capable of good behaviour and doing what they’re told to do. It’s now up to you to learn to do similar types of things that day care teaches, in your own home. And that will make life at home a lot easier for everyone.”