Have you ever felt as if your child can be such a brat at home but all you hear from his or her teachers is what a lovely, caring and cooperative kid you have? You might think to yourself “Hey kiddo, if you can manage this good behavior at school, why are you being such a pain at home?”
This can be really frustrating. I know. You may think “What am I doing wrong here??”, but I am here to tell you that you are actually doing something RIGHT. Wanna see how? Read on.
Let me share with you the story of Adam and Michelle, a couple of parents that came to me with their child's misbehavior (now, for proper disclosure: this story is based on true events but I changed identifying details to protect the privacy of those involved).
Amber was a cute looking 7 years old girl with the most amazing smile you’ve ever seen. She was the oldest child of Adam and Michelle, who also had a 5 years old boy and a baby on the way.
Adam and Michelle asked to see me after an incident in the home when Amber went berserk, ran around the house flailing a toy sword and paid zero attention to her Dad’s requests that she’d stop. Eventually, she managed to accidentally knock down a vase that broke as soon as it met the floor, barely missing her brother’s head.
“As soon as it happened, I lost it”, said Adam in our session. “I lashed at her, screaming awful things like ‘What the hell is wrong with you, you little brat? I told you to stop, why can’t you ever listen?’”. Both he and Michelle expressed great despair, and shame, with their own parenting. Michelle said that she felt like a “raving mom and total failure”.
“Why is that?”, I asked, and both of them explained that this kind of misbehavior only happens at home, when they are around. In school, she’s a little goody-two-shoes. She doesn’t interrupt the class, participates in the lessons and is a good, supportive friend. The same is true in after-school activities, like when she goes to visit a friend or in her weekly Judo lessons.
And worst of all? Amber is the sweetest thing when she meets her grandparents, even when they visit at her home. But as soon as she’s alone with her parents, she find all kinds of misbehavior. “It’s like the mask wears off and she’s back to this annoying little thing”, Michelle said in a mixture of anger and sadness.
However, as I was getting to know Adam and Michelle a little bit more, and after seeing Amber a couple of times, I started to understand what’s going on and why she’s acting like that with them.
And the secret lies in her secure attachment.
What is Secure Attachment?
For me, Attachment Theory is one of the most important pillars when it comes to understanding human psychology. I have written before about what is the attachment theory and what does secure and insecure attachment mean, but let’s have a brief recap.
Attachment is a psychological construct t
Broadly speaking, we can be either securely or insecurely attached to our parents. I wrote extensively about the differences between attachment patterns, but suffice it to say that a securely attached child feels he can trust his parents to be there for him, to calm and support whenever something’s wrong.
When a child is securely attached, she can feel free to go out to the world and explore it. She knows that if something happens, there’s a safe haven to run to. This is what we mean when we say that a parent is supposed to provide a secure base for his or her child.
What Does Secure Attachment Have to do a Child's Misbehavior?
As I wrote previously, the secret to understanding the big difference in Amber’s misbehavior is her attachment to her parents. As I was getting to know Amber and her parents, it was clear to me that Adam and Michelle were attuned to her feelings and needs from the get-go. They could think about her feelings and as a smaller child knew how to deal with her emotions. Evidently, Amber had a really robust, secure attachment to them.
What does it mean for behavior? Well, as we’ve said, having a feeling of secure attachment, a secure base, and a safe haven to come back to, helps children to explore their world. And one way that children are exploring the world is by pushing boundaries.
The Importance of Boundaries
One thing we parents are known to do is telling our children what and what not to do. “Don’t throw food on the floor!”, “It’s time to take a shower and go to bed”, “Don’t hit your sister” – all of these are intended to set our expectations and guide our children’s behavior.
Children need us to set rules and boundaries, not only because it’s our way to keep them alive and well, but because this is how they learn to be members of our society. By getting our feedback on their behavior they learn what is expected of them, and what behaviors are not tolerated by society – be it by us the parents, by the teachers and other adults, and by their peers.
But children don’t just learn the rules by hearing about them. They need to test them. Let me give you a simple example. When my daughter was around one year old, she was moving around the house on all fours. One day she approached a wall and unintentionally she bumped her head on it (gently, don’t worry).
We looked at her, wondering if she’s ok. She was. But then she surprised us as she just stayed there and bumped her head again, ever so gently, intentionally this time. And then she did it again. And once more just for the sake of it.
Why did she do that? When she bumped her head for the first time, she simply encountered a boundary. A physical, robust boundary. It was new to her. She was curious about it. Children are curious like that. They approach things in a way we use to forget how to do when we grow up. One can say they approach things like a scientist.
If we could have read our daughter’s mind at that moment, it would probably say things like “Woah! What was that? My head touched that big white thing and it felt… weird. Let me try that again! <bump> Oh my! I felt it again. Well, I guess I can’t just move through this big white thing. Oh well, let’s go do something else”.
So with Amber, it’s kind of like that, but on a whole different scale. She knows how she’s expected to behave, as can be seen in the school setting. But she needs to explore and test the boundaries. And in her mind, even if she cannot articulate this, she knows that she can stretch those boundaries with her parents. And why? Because she trusts them completely to be there for her.
And one more important thing to say is that the exploration kids need to do is also an internal one – they need to figure out their feelings and get to know them. When parents are able to hold, validate and accept every emotion their child expresses – even the so-called “bad” ones – their children will have a much better experience.
Should I Let My Kid Walk All Over Me?
So, now you may think that I’m saying we should let kids do whatever they want and break the rules as part of their exploration. But, well – no.
If you read my previous posts about the long term effects of parenting styles, you know that leading a parenting style where we let the children lead the way completely and do whatever they want (ie, permissive parenting), we are in for trouble.
The secret sauce lies in being able to set boundaries and uphold them, but in a flexible manner, and more importantly, by being respectful towards your child.
When Amber was running around the house, flailing a sword and breaking that vase, she did something wrong. She was careless and didn’t think ahead. Then again, she’s seven years old and doesn’t really have the capacity to think ahead. In a way, she was exploring the boundaries of her play, her body, and her parents’ patience.
So what are they to do? What are you supposed to do in this situation?
First of all, if your child is doing something that may hurt him, or someone else (or something else that you don’t want to break) – you can and should stop him or her. Even if that means you use some force (and no, I DO NOT MEAN HITTING THEM. I do mean you can stop your child, grab that sword or whatever and stop them from playing like that).
And then, you can take a nice, long breath and remind yourself that your child is letting him or herself act in an unruly matter because they trust you. They know you can handle it, and that you can be there for them and guide them when they need this kind of guidance.
If you’re having some rough time accepting these moments and regulating yourself, let me refer you to my posts about putting some mindfulness into your parenting. If you haven’t done so yet, I do suggest downloading my totally free mindfulness exercise guide for parents, right here.
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These are wonderful teaching opportunities for you as a parent, and you should use them to connect with your child. Get down to his or her eye-level, hold them and explain to them, in a respectful and loving tone, what was wrong about that behavior. Try to help them see things from other people's perspective. For example, Amber needed to learn and think about how her breaking the vase was seen from her parent's point of view.
This kind of conversation, as it is done in a respectful, calm tone of voice, and not in an angry, disrespectful manner, will help your child integrate what is expected of him with the knowledge that you'll always be there for him, staying as a secure base.
If your child behaves rather nicely and good outside of the home – in school, at friends’ homes etc. – but misbehaves when they’re with you, that’s actually a good thing. Why? Because it probably means they have a well-established secure attachment with you. When a child is securely attached he or she can trust their parents to be there for them, therefore they allow themselves to be more playful, which sometimes mean they are more brash and unruly.
That’s not a bad thing, as long as you know how to set your boundaries well, in a respectful manner. By doing so, you are teaching your child an important lesson – that he or she is free to explore their inner world, and the outer world, without fear of losing contact with you. And that, my friends, is all a child needs.