Angel Child Or Devil Child? When Kids Save Their Bad Behavior For You
Have you ever heard someone talk about how well-behaved your child is and
thought in disbelief, "Excuse me? Are you talking about my kid?" While we
usually enjoy hearing good things about our children, being told that your child
is an angel by others can be confusing and frustrating when she's out of control
at home. It's one thing if your child acts out in a variety of places or
situations, but it's a completely different thing when it feels like her anger
is directed at you and only you, all the time. On top of that, it's very easy to
feel like there's something wrong with you-and that you're alone in all of
this-when you're walking on eggshells around her while everyone else is singing
You might even start asking yourself if you're crazy or wondering if your child
hates you. When your child directs all her bad behavior at you it feels personal
and it cuts deep, but the good news is that you have the power to change your
situation. Keep reading to find out how.
On the Parental Support Line, we hear from parents whose kids save their bad
behavior for home all the time. I think it's important to first point out that
kids don't intentionally do this; it's not like they get angry at school or at
their friend's house and think, "I can't wait to get home so I can just explode
and scream at my mom!" It doesn't really happen like that; in most cases it's
not a conscious process and it's not intended to hurt you.
It's also important to realize that kids who are well-behaved in public do
generally have a desire to please teachers and other adults and to be liked by
them. The positive attention they get in public serves to reinforce this good
behavior and is enough to motivate these kids to keep it together in situations
that would normally make them come unglued if they were at home. Positive
behaviors have been rewarded most frequently and consistently in public
You might be thinking, "I reward my child at home. I give him praise and
recognition when he does well but it makes no difference." If that's the case,
consider this: home is usually safe. It's a place where kids typically feel
secure showing their ugliest behavior to adults. They know that you'll still
love them and they'll still get their needs met if they act out. While it's good
for kids to feel loved and secure, that sense of safety also makes tantrums at
home more likely.
Something else we tend to see happening in these kinds of cases is that acting
out pays big at home. And it pays more than rewards or praise-it pays in power.
As James Lehman says, "Children study their parents for a living," and if your
child acts out at home but not in public, she's figured out that she can
overpower you with her tantrums or anger. A different kind of conditioning has
taken place, one in which negative behavior has been reinforced more
consistently or strongly than positive behaviors.
This is frustrating because you naturally begin to wonder, "Why does my child
behave for her teacher but not for me? What am I doing wrong?" Here's the truth:
It's not helpful to look at parenting in terms of wrong versus right. That
implies that you are to blame, and blaming isn't helpful. Instead it's more
helpful to look at the issue as a question of whether you are being effective or
ineffective. And the good news is that if your child behaves well in public,
you're not doing as poorly as you might think. In fact, this tells me that you
have some important tools in your toolkit that are already working. Children who
behave well in school or other public settings clearly have the skills it takes
to effectively manage frustration, listen to instruction from adults, deal with
limits, and so on. You probably taught your child these skills either directly
or indirectly; she's simply choosing not to use these same skills when she's at
What might be lacking at home in these cases is what we call a "culture of
accountability". If you want your child to start behaving better at home it's
very important to start building a culture of accountability today. Your child
needs to know that she is accountable to you and that her behavior will not be
dismissed or tolerated any longer.
Effective Techniques to Help Improve Your Angel/Devil Child's Behavior
By working toward a culture of accountability, I predict you will see some
significant changes in your child's behavior at home in relatively short order.
This is no easy process by any means-it's going to take some commitment and hard
work on your part-but it will really change the dynamic in your family in a
powerful way. Here are some tips to get you started:
Choose one thing to work on first. It's very natural when you start making
changes to feel like everything needs to change and that it has to start right
now. But changing everything all at once can actually be very counterproductive.
What I often recommend to parents on the Parental Support Line is that they make
a list of problem behaviors and rank the items on this list in order from most
troublesome to least. Start with the one on top and work your way down the list.
Set clear expectations. You can tell your child that things haven't been going
so well and you are going to start making some changes to help everyone in the
home get along better. State your expectations around the behavior you have
chosen to focus on. For example, you might say, "Jake, you get rude and verbally
abusive when you don't get your way. That's not okay. There's no excuse for
abuse and it won't be tolerated anymore." Then you can let your child know that
when it happens you are going to walk away and that there will be consequences
One crucial rule for parents to follow here is offered by James Lehman in the
The Total Transformation Parenting Program. James says,
"What you say has to be what you mean,
or what you say means nothing-it means whatever the person chooses to hear. And
if you give these kids these mixed messages, they learn that what you say means
nothing." In other words, if you tell your child you are going to do something
and then you don't do it, nothing is going to change. When you tell your child
what is going to happen from now on when he gets abusive, you must be prepared
to follow through or else you will end up undermining your efforts-and your own
Focus on skill-building and coaching. While we already know that your child does
have some sound problem-solving skills that help her to behave well outside the
home, we have to consider that what works in one setting might not work in
another. You can sit down with your child and ask her whether she ever gets
angry or upset at school or at her friends' houses. Let your child know she does
a really good job of handling it when she's away from home and ask her what she
does to manage herself so well. You can encourage her to do this when she gets
upset at home or talk about some other options that might work, like listening
to music, going for a run or journaling.
It's your responsibility to make sure that your child knows what she can do at
home to solve problems more effectively. Do not take it for granted that she
already knows. It can be difficult for some kids to see the big picture and
transfer their existing problem-solving skills to different situations. In the
heat of the moment you can give your child a quick reminder about what will be
helpful: "Hey, we talked about this. You said when you got angry from now on you
would go outside and kick around the soccer ball. Now's the time to do that."
Don't participate in the outburst. Your child has relied on his acting out
behavior to get by and when you change, it's going to take him a while to follow
in your footsteps. He will continue to act out for a period of time, but you
don't have to participate or be a part of that. When your child starts to
escalate, walk away. Go to another part of the home where you can have some
space and do something to take your attention off him and his inappropriate
behavior. Attention reinforces the behavior and keeps it going, so the less you
engage-and the sooner you make the decision not to get sucked in-the better.
Use effective consequences. It's going to be very helpful to focus on
consequences that help your child practice a new skill. Physical discipline or
punitive punishments like having children write out, "I will listen to my
mother" 100 times accomplish very little in the long run. If your child calls
his sister a name, for example, you might restrict one privilege until he goes 2
hours without being rude to her or anyone in the family. For physical abuse or
destruction of property you might put a privilege on hold until your child
writes down a plan for what he'll do differently next time and makes amends. An
appropriate amends is dependent on the situation, but it could include replacing
an object he broke when he was angry or cleaning up a mess he made.
Understand that when consequences become too long they become ineffective. And,
as James Lehman states, we don't want to simply teach kids to "do time" or live
without a favorite object indefinitely. This becomes counterproductive in the
long run because that object loses value, and if your child doesn't value it,
it's no longer an effective consequence.
Will My Child Ever Behave as Well at Home as He Does in Public?
The long and short of it is this: your child most likely acts out at home
because it gives him a sense of power, because he's been able to get away with
it, or both. Establishing a culture of accountability is the solution. As James
Lehman said, "I think the most important thing for every family is to have a
Culture of Accountability in your home. This means your child is accountable to
you for how he talks to you, how he talks to his siblings, how he treats his
family members." Establishing a culture of accountability in your home, while
not an easy or necessarily quick process, is a sure way to reconcile your
child's angelic public persona and that "dark side" you see from him at home.
("Angel Child Or Devil Child" reprinted with permission from
by Sara A. Bean, M.Ed.
Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in
Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic
University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old
girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing, creators of
The Total Transformation Parenting Program,
since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of
experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group
homes, and schools.