Multiple Personalities?

Occasionally, children make comments that are meaningful in ways that are well beyond their developmental levels. These comments make me pause. Sometimes I can accept that the “wisdom” in the comment is purely accidental. Other times, like in the case of 8-year-old Laura, a comment is just too deep and meaningful to be an accidental stringing together of words:

Yea, Mom, but you don’t know me everywhere. Laura, age 8

Laura’s family had come in to see me because Laura was having significant behavioral problems at home. She was not compliant with household rules and expectations, and she could become downright nasty when she didn’t get her way. The behavioral problems had been going on for about 6 months. Mom and Dad had been doing some reading and were convinced that Laura’s behaviors were signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

I spoke with one of Laura’s 2nd grade teachers. He explained that Laura had been tested recently by the school psychologist and speech and language therapist due to questions about her language abilities. She was found to have above average intellectual ability and a significant deficit in expressive language. Laura had been moved to an inclusion classroom (co-taught by special education and regular education teachers) and had begun receiving daily speech therapy. The teacher described Laura’s behavior at school as pleasant, cooperative, and helpful. He said that Laura appeared focused, eager to please, and willing to work hard. He told me that he had worked with many students with ADHD over the years and that he would be shocked if Laura were one of them. He was unaware of and surprised to learn of Laura’s behavioral problems at home.

In a session with the family, I shared with Laura all the wonderful comments her teacher had made about her. It was clear that Laura felt very proud of herself as a student. She was making good grades, was well-liked by her classmates, and was making excellent progress in her language therapy. When I asked Laura about the difference between her behavior at home and school, her mother jumped in and responded, “I just don’t get it. She’s giving her Dad and me such trouble at home, it’s hard to believe the teacher’s comments are true.” That’s when Laura made the comment above.

It turned out that Laura’s parents were very warm and loving but very lackadaisical about rules and routines. There were no clear rules about homework, for example, other than the expectation that it be done. Laura could do homework before or after dinner, in her room or while watching television. Meals were catch-as-catch-can, and Laura put herself to bed when she felt tired. Believe it or not, this approach works for some kids, but not for a child like Laura who thrives under school conditions – lots of rules, routines, and structure. Laura’s behavior improved rapidly as Mom and Dad begin to impose some order to her life. Nonetheless, Mom and Dad were unlikely ever to see at home the model-citizen Laura who attended school.

Laura’s story illustrates a basic truth about children (and adults for that matter). Children behave differently in different settings with different people. I understood this at one level many years ago when I was a nanny. The children in my charge, who were very calm, cooperative, and cheerful most of the time when I was alone with them would morph into whiny, clingy, uncooperative children as soon as one of their parents came home. Some days, I could not get out of the house fast enough. I began to understand this phenomenon at a much deeper level once I became the mother of school-aged children. At times during parent-teacher conferences, I was tempted to interrupt the teacher and say, “Are you sure you’re talking about my kid? You know, the short one with curly brown hair?”

Roughly 99.99% of the time, settings other than home and people other than their own parents pull for better behavior from children. Most kids would never even think to pull the stunts at school that they pull at home. Or to talk to a teacher the way they talk to their parents. Or to leave the kitchen at a friend’s house in the condition they readily do at home. Hardly seems right, does it? Parents love their children; provide food, shelter, and clothing; buy them expensive toys and tickets;  and drive them to practice, to the mall, and to the game; and for all their efforts, parents are treated with less respect than teachers and friends’ parents. Yep, that about sums it up!

Be thankful that your children reserve their best behavior for others; it’s not fun to be a parent who gets called frequently by the principal about a child’s misdeeds or to be the parent of a child who is not welcomed into the homes of friends.

So, parents, when you are tempted to remind your daughter to use her manners as you drop her off at a friend’s house for a sleepover, know that a reminder is probably unnecessary. When your son’s teacher tells you he is a model student, and you flash back to the heated argument you had with him over homework just last night, don’t correct the teacher. And when your own parents tell you that your children are the best-behaved children they’ve ever seen, just smile and say, “Thank you.” Know that your kids are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, remember that you don’t know them everywhere, and keep your sarcastic comments to yourself.

[Names and all potentially identifying information have been changed.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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4 Responses to Multiple Personalities?

  1. I have certainly seen this behavior in my kids, especially my oldest. When we were dealing with him coming home from school and being physically abusive (mostly towards his mother) and shutting down completely (hiding in his room and refusing to talk), this was one of the things we worried about. However, when we received rave reports about how he was doing at school, the two places began to show him as having two different sets of behaviors.

    • Dr. Sayers says:

      Sounds exactly like the phenomenon I wrote about. It’s good news when behavior outside the home is better than behavior at home, much better than vice versa. Thanks for reading my blog!

  2. kathanda says:

    The joys of parenting!
    Sometimes I feel like i am going insane when I deal with my, now 17yr old. They always say what an amazing young man he is and that he is their favourite student in terms of cooperation and kindness. However I have noticed the more he hears how great he is, the more he decides that I have the problem, everyone else loves him.
    Just recently he is being called out at school from his teachers because he laidback attitude. He was an amazing student until his “great” personality no longer gave him grades.
    I think having a child hear No and standing our ground is so important when they are younger. I also love that parents hear that their kids are great for others, it gives hope, at least for teenagers!

  3. hiddinsight says:

    Thanks 🙂 But sarcasm keeps me sane…what will I do without it!! LOL…Great post.

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