This is why your child is an angel in public and hell at home.

To watch the video version click here.

Something that I haven’t really specifically covered and that has come up literally over a thousand times in the last year is why some kids are perfect angels at school, with their grandparents, often even with their secondary parent…usually Dad…but with us, with their mothers…they are the devil incarnate.

There’s no shame, there’s no shade going on here. There’s a really good reason for it and once you know what that reason is it’s going to be a lot easier to fix it.

Any guesses what might cause this?


This is a classic stress behavior, and it is directly tied to your child’s executive functioning skills. We at Uncommon Sense Parenting Dr. Shanker’s definition of stress, which is energy expenditure.

I won’t get too deep into explaining stress as energy expenditure, that is a topic for another time. The pivotal piece of information is that stress isn’t worrying. It’s anything we spend energy on.

Everything we do is a stressor. For little kids who are just developing their executive functioning skills which, if you’ve never heard of that before – they’re the mental tools that our brains use to do EVERYTHING. If those skills are sucking more energy than we have available, then we can’t use them. We lose access to them.

How this plays out when it comes to your child acting like Shirley Temple in public but at home with you, they’re Lucifer’s twin. Our kids are used to us compensating for those weak skills. They know that no matter what, we aren’t going to abandon them. We aren’t going to let them sink.

At school, in public with people who they don’t have a secure attachment with, they know they have to use those skills on their own to keep themselves safe.

For instance, I was discussing with a client the other week about how her daughter gets just glowing behavioral reviews from her teachers, but at home, she can’t follow directions. She’s always demanding her mother specifically do things for her like put her shoes or help her wash her hands after using the washroom. She hits her little brother when they’re playing together. She described her as “a tyrant.” She just couldn’t reconcile the two.

How can she do these things at school with a smile on her face, but at home it reduces her to this almost feral state?

This child is trying to manage her energy.

She’s just not going about it in the best way.

Let’s go back to our gas tank analogy- you have a certain amount of energy in your gas tank daily.

If everything you do sucks a certain amount of energy out of your gas tank, eventually you’re going to run out of energy. If using those mental tools are sucking too much energy, because they’re weak. They take a lot of effort to use- you’re going to run out of energy before your day is through.

In an effort to NOT run out of energy in public, where, remember, we don’t feel 100% safe. We’re with people we know, but not well enough to trust that they will compensate for us if we can’t handle our own shit.

In an effort to not run out of energy in public, we don’t use those skills where we do feel safe because we know our mothers will compensate for us no matter what. None of this is conscious, it’s not pre-meditated- your child isn’t CHOOSING to manage their energy maladaptively.

They’re doing it on survival instinct.

What can we do to fix it?

Now that we know what the problem is, that they have weak skills that are drawing more energy than is available. They’re prioritizing that energy draw for public spaces where they don’t feel completely safe….how do we fix it?

Well there’s a few things we can do.

One: We make them feel safer in public.

We build their relationships with their teachers, their daycare providers, friends’ parents, etc. Now, this will help them redistribute their energy a bit better, but if we only focus on this, then they’re still going to prioritize their energy to instances where they don’t feel safe.

Which will likely mean that you’ll just start seeing the maladaptive behavior in more scenarios.

This is why with some kids after Christmas break you’ll suddenly start seeing poorer behavior because they spent the first half of the year building the relationship. Learning where the trusted more knowledgeable others will compensate for them and where they won’t, so now they feel safe and like they don’t have to be on high alert all the time.

This is a puzzle piece, but if this is all you do you’re still going to have issues.

Two: We’re going to teach them how to recognize when their tank is getting low and to refill it.

This is the argument for more recess time.

This is the argument for allowing children who prefer to read to do so in the library.

This is why we’re ALL burning out, because we haven’t prioritized activities that give us back energy.

It’s that detective work of what refills their tank, and how can I teach them to do that throughout the day so that it’s not just a steady draw of energy but more of a wave.

THIS makes a huge difference because our kids aren’t then hoarding energy in reserve in case they need it for safety in public.

Three: Building those skills.

We keep coming back to it because they’re the foundation of EVERYTHING that makes us civilized human beings!

Remember how my client said her daughter was acting almost feral at home? Not totally inaccurate.

Without these mental tools, we’re regulated to acting on instinct, sensing, feeling, emotion. We become much more animal and much less human.

This is not necessarily bad in all situations, we need that part of our brain to determine friend and foe, to keep us safe, to allow us to feel joy and to play. We need our neocortex to think, to analyze, to learn, to know things.

We want those two parts of our brain in balance, having either one running the ship results in problems. S

Building up those executive functioning skills so that we can use them more proficiently and using less energy, is really important.

I like the analogy of actual tools, a saw.

If I give you a dull saw and ask you to cut a 2×4 it’s going to take you all damn day and you probably still won’t have accomplished it, PLUS you’ll be exhausted. If I give you a sharp saw you can do it quickly and easily and while it did take a bit of effort you’ve still got lots of energy left over to do other things, right?

That’s the difference between strong vs weak executive functioning skills.

How are you feeling about this? Does it make sense? Are you seeing how everything comes back to stress and skills?

Typical parenting advice is focusing on the top-level symptoms and that’s why it takes SO LONG for it to work. If it works at all, and why it often results in really damaging your relationship with your child.

When we deal with behaviour from the bottom up you see results much faster, and it’s a much more positive experience for everyone.

I know that this takes a certain level of knowledge to be able to accomplish, it’s not easy. If it was easy it would be the norm, and it’s not.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Drop me a comment.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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