When Your Child Saves His Worst Behavior for You

Updated: Jun 25


My daughter must have been five when she told me, through angry, spitting sobs, that she hoped a monster would vomit in my ear. It was the fall she started kindergarten, and I'd just picked her up from school. After only a few minutes in the car, she asked if she could go to the pumpkin patch.


"No, honey, not today," I said in my most empathetic voice, despite the fact that she already had been to the pumpkin patch twice that week already. My voice might have been gentle, but the tirade that followed was no less intense for it.


After melting down completely in her car seat, she screamed:"I hope a monster comes! And vomits! In your ear!"


Despite the silliness of it all, it wasn't an easy moment. Being yelled at never is. But did it mean I was doing something wrong — or, more to the point, that she was doing something wrong?


Actually, no.


My daughter was melting down because, quite literally, she had no choice.


Why Moms and Dads get the short end of the stick


All day long — at school, at daycare, at Grandma’s — our littles do their best to tamp down all those big feelings that sprout up and “be” the child they are expected to be. They swallow their words. The follow the rules. They toe the line. Then, often at the end of the day, their emotions spill out in the form of energy explosions, emotional meltdowns and hostile takeovers.


So why do we Mommas so often get the short end of the stick? Because we can handle it! Kids save their strongest emotions and most negative behavior for the people they trust the most, who they believe will love them unconditionally.


“Kids save their strongest emotions and most negative behavior for the people they trust the most, who they believe will love them unconditionally...”

From the outside, sure, it may look like the parents of kids who are running and screaming and attentions-seeking and melting down at the end of the night are weak-limited setters. But that's usually not the case. Kids save their worst selves for us not because they see us as weak; they do it because they see us as strong.


When Emotions Flare: Four Tips for Parents


Still, it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of a kid’s pent-up feelings (especially when it involves ear vomit). So here are a four tips to help cope in the moment.


1. Accept their hostility as a compliment.

Children save their worst behavior for their favorite people. If you find that your child is treating you rather terribly, try to perceive it the way child development author Dorothy Corkille Briggs suggests: as a compliment. “The child who openly expresses hostility to you actually hands you a double bouquet,” she wrote in Your Child's Self-Esteem. “You have reared him with enough strength to stand up for himself; he’s no wilted violet. And you have made him feel safe to express himself directly.”


2. Look at it as an opportunity to practice your self-regulation skills.

When you are teaching yourself to self-regulate — a skill most of us were not taught in childhood — there is no better time to practice than when your child is behaving in deeply irritating or hostile ways toward you. (Although we don't have the space to get into it right now, ParentShift has some wonderful and practical self-regulation tools for both parents and children.)


3. Invite the tantrum.


When your child is at tantruming age — that is, two to seven — and you feel a tantrum coming on, sometimes the best thing to do is welcome it. Instead of trying to sidestep the explosion, or postpone it, or distract the child out of it, just let it happen. Often, when kids can gets her feelings out in one, huge explosion like that, she’ll be good to go for the rest of the day.


4. Get on the child's level and give lots of ‘feeling acknowledgers.’


We talk a lot about feeling acknowledgers, and give a ton of examples, in ParentShift . They really are the epitome of empathy. When delivering feeling acknowledgers, you are not judging the child or trying to bring an end to her feelings. You are just sitting with her in her world and genuinely trying to identify and invite the expression of whatever she is feeling. It takes patience and practice, but empathy truly is your way out of so many emotionally heavy times.


Remember, the next time you child starts "acting out" after school or after karate pickup or after a day at Grandma's, please don't blame yourself for doing something wrong. Instead, credit yourself for doing something right. Because chances are very good that you have.

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