When parents hear how well-behaved their child is with a relative, teacher, friend, or caretaker, their response is often, “That’s not how she acts when she’s with me.” And conversely, when parents hear that their usually energetic child seemed withdrawn while spending time away from home, they wonder, “Why does she act differently when she’s away from me?”
A child’s behavior does change, depending on whom she’s with and where she is. Parents see this when they pick their child up from school, day care, or a friend’s house. As soon as they arrive, she may start acting negatively, whining, making demands, and clinging. When a parent asks if she’s acted this way all along, the usual answer is, “No, she was fine until you got here.” Parents may be partly relieved to hear their child enjoyed herself, but also partly upset and confused by her actions.
Most often, your child’s behavior changes when you arrive because she’s more comfortable when you’re around. Once she sees you, she can express feelings she may have been keeping to herself. Perhaps her day was frustrating because she couldn’t play with a favorite toy or felt pressure from her teacher, or because another child told her, “You’re not my friend anymore.” Or perhaps she was angry at you for leaving her with a caregiver. The day’s frustrations all come out when you come to pick her up.
It’s natural for your child to feel less comfortable expressing her needs and feelings when she’s away from home. Adults, too, are more reserved when at work or in the company of others. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a child who seems content all day will let off steam when she’s with her parents.
Some young children are only comfortable playing and exploring when their parents are around. Once parents arrive to pick their child up, she may start playing and resist going home. A child in this position probably spent part of her day watching other kids engaged in activities she was interested in and now, with her parents in sight, she’s eager to play. Therefore, some children don’t really begin to enjoy themselves until it’s time to leave.
If your child seems fussy after a day away from you or starts complaining when it’s time to go home, be sure to question the teacher, friend, or caregiver. Ask about your child’s interest and activity level, and try to get a true picture of her day.
If you know that her mood will change when she sees you, you can plan ahead. If she’s whining, try to distract her. “When we get home, I’m going to get the play dough out.” Or “I’m going to have a snack with you.” And if you know she’ll want to start playing when you’re ready to pick her up from school or day care, arrive a little early or stay a little longer. That way, she’ll have time to explore comfortably and then leave in a pleasant way.