Why does my child behave out in public, but not at home?
Often parents complain to me that their child is perfectly behaved out in public but becomes the spawn of Satan in private. My response to this is to tell them that they're lucky, especially if their child has sensory issues. A child who works hard to keep his behavior in check and present a good face to the world, and waits to let down the facade until he is home, is a very smart little person. Wouldn't you rather have a child who tries his best to do well in public and save his less adorable behavior for behind closed doors? I tell the parents of the children I treat that it's unfair, because they're doing all the hard work of raising the child while everyone else is getting the benefit of his charm, but it's definitely preferable to having the child acting out all the time in front of others.
By the way, we do this, too. Who hasn't spent a stressful day at work, being polite and accommodating against our will to annoying coworkers, maddening clients, and overly demanding bosses, then come home and been grouchy to loved ones? We know we shouldn't, but we also know that our loved ones will love us anyway, even when we forget to display our party manners.
Children who have sensory issues but present a good face to the world must work very hard at it. When they come home, they are often exhausted, depleted, and unable to cope anymore. Home is where they can allow themselves to express all of the rage, frustration, and misery that build up during a stressful day. Mommy and Daddy are there to help contain them and make them feel safe while they melt down.
It's very challenging for us, as adults, to put on our game faces and go out into the world day after day, and I think it's at least a hundred times more challenging for our little ones, who are not nearly as sophisticated in their ability to navigate and make sense of the increasingly complex and confusing terrain the world has become. Small children have not yet developed the inner resources or emotional flexibility required to be able to handle whatever comes their way with grace, and sensory defensive children are particularly vulnerable. Their internal chemistry is chronically short on the "feel good" neurotransmitters -- dopamine and seratonin -- to be able to allow things to roll off their backs, the way we can when we're on top of our game and can take things in stride.
I was recently consulted by a mother whose preschooler did very well at school but was going through a difficult spate of tantrums and challenging behaviors at home. I asked the mother what had been happening in the child's life and if anything had changed. The mother thought about it and said that she had been spending quite a bit of extra time away from the family in order to resuscitate her high power career in law, which had been dormant since having children. She also realized that they had had several non stop weekends of activities, most of which were very stimulating, and that her son had not had nearly enough down time to regroup. She resolved to spend more time with him, just hanging out and doing nothing in particular. We also talked about my "Don't Ask, Do Tell" approach to communication, and she said that she could see that she was contributing to the problem by being unclear in her expectations of him.
Just making sure that the child gets plenty of sleep, nutritious food, unstructured down time, and opportunities to play outside can help, as well. We need all of those things to stay sane, and they need them even more than we do. Children who are overtired and overscheduled, and therefore overwhelmed, are particularly susceptible to tantrums. Here's another plug for making sure your child gets regular time out of doors: who is more likely to have a lot pent up, frustrated energy: a child who has run around for a few hours on the playground, or a child who has spent the afternoon playing video games?