Misbehaving when we have company over

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Dear Jane...

Once again I write to you seeking advice. My husband and I are trudging through your "positive disciplne" book. We've recently set up charts and are really trying hard to get the children involved in the problem solving....here's another quest for you...recently we moved to a new town...my son will be starting school in 3 weeks (jr k). He seems very excited. My other son is 2 1/2. Lately the two are so misbehaving when we have company over or go visiting. ie last night we had friends stop by with short notice and with their two young children. Almost immediately my kids begin showing off, tossing toys, bumping into each other, even into the littlest guy and so twice my husband and once myself pulled my eldest aside and had a quick chat that he would have to stop the acting silly or he was gone to bed ( now after the 2nd and 3rd time I think we were just talking instead of acting) however the 4th time he went to his room and to bed...this lasted all of 5 minutes and he came out sobbing and promising to be good and that lasted 10 minutes..we were very embarrassed as our friends kids were quiet the whole time...we kept on saying "McCulla that's enough now" McCulla we don't bump into people" this went on and on and finally our friends left...we were upset after they left and felt that we have the worst behaving kids in the world and do not want to go anywhere...help!!!! also how old do the kids need to be to start having family meetings? Should we be addressing these issues as they come up and have a family meeting if need be everyday??????




There is nothing quite like the feeling of being totally embarrassed by your children's behavior, whether it happens in public or in your own living room. It sounds as though you and your children have been through a lot of change lately. Moving to a new town (and new home) is stressful for everyone, including kids; they become attached to familiar surroundings, rooms, homes, and people and find it difficult to be uprooted. They're looking for belonging and significance and appear to have chosen some mistaken ways of finding them.

If you're reading Positive Discipline, you may have heard about the Mistaken Goals. Take a moment and put yourself back in that visit from your friends. What were you feeling? Use the mistaken goal chart from the book and use your own feelings to decipher your children's mistaken goal. My guess is that they were looking for your attention in order to feel a sense of specialness and belonging--and the tragedy of misbehavior is that it works so well. When kids misbehave, we certainly do pay attention. The chart will give you some solutions for the goal your children were pursuing. Spending some extra "special time," involving them in positive ways, and learning to "shut your mouth and act" will probably help, but remember that stress and change make your children more needy, not less.

Even in your question, you seem to be aware that you are "talking" instead of "acting." With children this age, actions speak much louder than words. As soon as they start acting silly, you could take them by the hand and walk them to their rooms. You might say, "You can come out as soon as you are ready."

Another possibility is to give them choices, "Do you want to play here politely, or would you like to go to your room to play alone."

Sometimes it helps to ask, "How do you need to behave if you want to stay here and play?" It is often much more effective to ask them what they need to do instead of telling them what to do?
Sometimes, the very best thing you can do is be more concerned about what your kids think than what your company thinks. You might need to say to your company, "Excuse us a minute," and then take your kids to another room. Tell them how much you love them, and ask them to help you come up with a plan that will make everyone feel good.

As for family meetings, children are best able to participate when they have reached the "age of reason" and can join in the problem solving and appreciation, usually around the age of three or four. Your oldest son can benefit, and even your youngest can participate--if you have appropriate expectations. Even if formal family meetings won't work yet, you can continue to involve your children in solutions, set reasonable boundaries for behavior, and follow through with kindness, firmness, and dignity.

Hang in there!

Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT



Your letter reminds me how much my kids have grown up (now ages 10,12 and 15). Having company was a challenge for us when the kids were little too...but a couple of things that we learned from our parenting class really helped make a big difference.

1. Remembering to take a look at the world from the kids point of view. What does "company" look like to a child? Of course the answer is different for every child and every occasion, but in general it might look like: Someone is taking mom and dads attention (that should be mine) Someone is playing with MY toys and I didn't want them too There are other kids around to be loud and noisy with WHOOPEE! I'm hungry and tired and needy and no one is paying attention to me. I don't like them and I wish they would go away. (and the opposite: this is fun and I don't want them to go away).

2. Having thought about it from the kids perspective, plan ahead (even with only a few moments notice) and ask the kids what can be done to make the event fun for everyone. There is a little problem here, because the parents and the kid's definition of fun is different. Sometimes with young kids at home we felt so needy we just wanted to talk to our friends and have the kids go "play happily by themselves". Right. But when you think about the problems PROSPECTIVELY with out ANY threats of punishments or consequences, then amazing solutions come forward (and often new insights to what the real problems are).
Here are a few of the solutions we used which may or may not work for your family:

"Special toys", the favorites were put away so that the other kids would not play with them. Sometimes bedroom doors were shut and hand made signs crafted to say "stay out" so kids space was not violated. Making sure the kids were well fed FIRST often made a big difference in their tolerance. Making a little list of things that might be fun to do while the adults are talking (a new batch of playdough, hide and seek with stuffed animals.... especially fun in the dark with flashlights, water toys in a bucket on the patio -I always used shallow buckets with not too much water unless there was close supervision). Thinking with the kids about active fun activities and QUIET fun activities to help folks cool down and calm down if it gets really exciting ( too loud for parents to talk). Some of the quiet activities were listening to books on tape, short videos, puzzles or having one of the parents read a story (leaving the other group of parents to talk). Sometimes when we had friends over that we had not seen in a long time and we knew we would not want to be distracted we hired a high school student to come over and play with the kids for an hour or two so the parents could really chat. (That obviously does not work on short notice... but is REALLY effective if you don't want the every 2-4 minute "check ins" (in the form of problems, or questions, or requests for help) that young children need to make to make sure that you are still there.

A couple of other comments. When you have a child that is clearly into mischief... or creating behavior that is disruptive (like bumping into others) he is telling you by his actions that he is not feeling good. We would say that he is not feeling that he has belonging and significance. At that moment he is acting like he believes that if he creates commotion he will have more control or more attention and then he would have belonging and significance. (That's what Jane Nelsen and other Adlerians refer to mistaken goals). When a child is out of sorts like that, I find it most helpful to acknowledge (privately) with the child that I can tell by their behavior that they are not feeling good and ask them if they know what is going on. (At 2 1/2 they usually don't but the question is always good anyway because it communicates your caring). Then I ask them if they know what would help them feel better. My experience is that they often do know what would help them feel better, but if they don't the kind of suggestions I would offer would be: Would you like to quietly sit on my lap for a few minutes and snuggle a bit while I listen to the other adults until you feel better? Would you like to take some time out doing something that you enjoy by yourself until you feel better? (they might need suggestions like snuggling with a stuffed animal, listening to a tape, going to a cozy spot, calling gramma on the phone) My experience is that sending a kid to their room usually makes things worse rather than better. Why? Because they feel bad to begin with and feel "left out". Being "sent out" makes it worse. They feel that they were not heard. They spend the time plotting revenge. (Didn't you ever do that? I sure did!)

Finally, don't take your children's behavior personally. It is not a sign of who you are and how much "control" you have. (Parental control is not a goal of parenting anyway, we want our kids to learn control...and they can't learn it very well when we keep taking over) It is saying something about them and how they felt that day. It can be frustrating when you are in the mood for visitors...and they clearly are not, but that does not mean you are not a good parent. The flexibility that we have as adults to adapt to all kinds of situations with behavior appropriate for the situation comes over time. You're on the right track. Enjoy them... this is a challenging time for parents because they are needy. before you know it they are off to highschool and prefer not to have you around. People always told me it goes so quick... and I didn't really understand until my kids had grown out of that wonderful, curious, extremely energetic and demanding developmental period. Best wishes

Jody McVittie, M.D. , Positive Discipline Associate

Online Learning

Positive Discipline offers online learning options for parents, teachers, and parent educators. Learn in the comfort of your own home and at your own pace. You have unlimited access to our online streaming programs, so you can watch and re-watch the videos as often as you like.