Why Children Act Out Most For Their Parents

Posted March 3, 2020

By, Tracy Riekenberg

It happened one recent weekend day. My son looked right at me and yelled, “I hate you!” then stormed off to his room.

This came as a shock from my boy. In his nine years on earth, he has gotten upset with me, but not to this degree. For the most part, he has been cuddly, loving, affectionate, and attached to me. This is the same boy who I didn’t get to hold until he was three days old. (He and his twin sister were born prematurely and he was whisked off to an isolette, hooked up to IVs and CPAP, and fragile for those first days). After the first moment I finally got to hold him, he never has wanted to let me go. He was the one to need extra rocking at night, the one who gave me big sloppy open mouth baby kisses, the one who never wanted to feed himself – he wanted me to do it for him. He is the one who climbs into bed with me on weekends to cuddle, the one who still holds my hand in public, the one who has a special good-night poem we HAVE to say every night. He is the one who is reluctant to spend the night at a friend’s house because he needs to be close to me. He is the one who cuddles next to me while we watch a movie. He is the one who really, really loves me. 

And yet, he is the one to first say he hated me. 

Talk about mama heartbreak!

After my emotions cooled off a bit, I recalled something my Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) teacher told us years ago: children most often act out for their parents because they feel safe with them. 

I’m sure it’s happened to all of us. Your child runs around, refuses to put on her coat, or flat-out tells you NO when it’s time to go home from school. Your heart breaks because you’ve been waiting all day to see her, yet she appears to be angry to go home. Or your child spends the afternoon/weekend with Grandma. You hear how he was a perfect angel, even helping Grandma with chores and eating every meal with no complaint. Then you get home and he starts screaming, crying, kicking, and having an absolute meltdown. Or you had a rare moment out and come home to your children playing happily with a babysitter. When she goes to put her coat on to leave, you’re left with a tantrum about getting ready for bed. 

It’s hard not to take these acting out moments personally. “What is it about me that is so much worse than the babysitter?” you think. And it’s even harder not to be completely embarrassed. “Oh my gosh!” you might think, “what if she acts like this for her teachers!?”

Chances are, she doesn’t. 

First of all, it takes a lot of child brainpower to be “on” all day at school, at Grandma’s, or with a babysitter. Deep down, children know the behavior expectations and their brains are working hard to keep the whining down, wiggles controlled, learning going, and rules followed. The second they can turn that section of their brain to “off,” they let loose all the emotions of the day. Maybe they’re hungry, tired, mad, sad or even happy, exhausted, and processing something new. The flood of emotions coming over them can create the outbursts you see the moment you come home. 

Secondly, your child may love their Grandma, trust and respect their teachers, and engage with their babysitter…. But your child LOVES you. Your child knows that you love him and that love is unconditional. He bursts into a tailspin of acting out because deep down he knows that no matter how bad he acts, he knows that you will still love him no matter what. 

At the moment, of course, remembering that these outbursts come from safety and love is so very hard. Because we love our children so deeply, when the behaviors seem to be directed right at us, it hurts! Our brains go into a panic mode and we can’t function in a calm manner. 

Even if you can’t do it in the heat of the outburst, later try to remember that you are a loved person in your child’s world. Because now, several days after the painful event with my son, I have had time to remind myself that “I hate you” really means “I love you.” (And sometimes looking back at pictures of just how much your child loves you helps!)