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A resource produced for parents and educators by Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. 

An angel at school and a terror at home: Our psychologists explain why

By Linda Stade

One of my close friends is struggling. Let’s call her Jules. She is respected as a medical professional; she has a strong marriage, and she has two capable daughters. In my low moments, I turn to her because she is empathetic and generous with her support and love.


Jules recently confided in me that she cannot handle the arguments she is having with her twelve-year-old. There were tears as she told me how aggressive and out of control her daughter can be.   


Her little angel is still fluttering her wings at school, but at home, she is lashing out and causing havoc in their family.


Why does this happen with so many young adolescents? Jules is a great mum. Her kids are loved and cared for in a way I wish all kids were… but still, her daughter acts out.


Ask the experts


A purposeful chat with school-based psychologists can unearth gold for parents and educators. So, I approached clinical psychologists Kristina Morgan and Rosie Peters, from Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane, to try and get more clarity around this common pattern.


In our discussion, we began using the metaphor of pyjamas. When pyjamas are too tight, they are uncomfortable and irritating, and you end up wrestling them off in the middle of the night. Maybe we are metaphorically giving our kids pyjamas that are too small and they are wrestling with us as a result.


Little worlds getting bigger


In early adolescence (roughly 10 to 14) our kids are going through the second-greatest growth period of their lives. They are experiencing puberty, social and emotional change, brain restructuring, heightened moral awareness, and they are individualising. Our kids are growing, and they need their world to grow too.


Our kids are aware that the outside world is wider and offers so much promise, but home may be too tight. It’s like they are wearing pyjamas that are too small and have outlived their usefulness.


My psychologist friends suggest that parents need to adapt their expectations. Tweens and teens do become less compliant, and they will test limits. That’s normal.


“Adapt to parenting the child you have now, not the child you had yesterday. Let out the seams or give your child new pyjamas. You can’t put your 13-year-old into the pjs they had when they were six, even though you loved that version of them so much. It just won’t work.”


When kids are uncomfortable, they find a way to express that discomfort. They might lash out or stonewall or be openly defiant. This can be a shock for parents. The tighter the pjs the bigger the pushback.


What is individualisation?


Home is where early adolescents practise individualisation. They start identifying as separate and distinct from you in who and what they are. It’s huge! It includes their choices, tastes, thoughts, plans… everything.


It is an important stage of their development, and it can be wonderful watching and supporting your kids as they evolve into who they are meant to be. However, it can cause conflict if parents aren’t cognisant of what is happening or are committed to creating a ‘mini-me’.


If individualisation is delayed beyond its natural onset, it will cause feelings of depression and anxiety and a sense of not knowing who they are. Then, when it does eventually happen, it will be more dramatic and there will be no parental safety net. It will be more consequential than just yelling at Mum and Dad.


The right-sized pyjamas are important!

Why isn’t it happening at school?


It is frustrating to go to parent-teacher interviews where educators rave about your child’s level of responsibility, leadership, and great behaviour, while at home you’re getting a big dose of brattitude.


But think about it, school is an environment where there are age-appropriate rules, boundaries, and guidance. They provide new experiences and new growth opportunities in learning, relationships, leadership, cocurricular, character, and if you’ve chosen a religious school… faith.


At a good school, your child’s world grows in a planned, controlled way because it is an objectively created environment. By that I mean, we care about your child, but we do not have that overwhelming love that can sometimes, unconsciously stand in the way of growth.


This isn’t a criticism of parents at all. I am beyond grateful that we have parents who are so deeply loving and protective. I am merely saying, be careful not to get in your own way or in the way of your child. A loving hug can sometimes turn into unintended strangulation!


The other factor at school is the peer group. An increased awareness of social networks is a necessary part of adolescent growth. Biologically their focus is turning toward their friends and peers. These relationships help make their world bigger.


In effect, by their very nature, good schools let out the seams of our kids’ pyjamas gradually.


What else do parents need to know to move forward?


Kristina and Rosie have more great advice to help you move forward if you are finding this stage of your child’s development difficult.


  1. Sit in the current discomfort and do not ‘future-worry’. Just because your child hates you today, doesn’t mean they will tomorrow. Just because your child took a silly risk today, doesn’t mean they are going to make poor decisions for the rest of their lives.  

  2. You need to be the stable, bigger, wiser, kinder party. This is hard, but your child needs to know that they do not have to be perfect to be loved and they can always rely on you as a safe place. This time of turmoil sets up the communication and trust patterns they will need in life. They learn from the way you respond to upset.  

  3. Don’t abandon all boundaries just because you now recognise, your child has grown. Instead, communicate new boundaries (provide appropriate night wear!). Connection and communication are key in this process. It’s confusing if you suddenly change your rules and expectations without explaining why. If you think you’ve made mistakes in all this, say so. Kids are very forgiving, and they respect when we own our mistakes. It teaches them to own theirs too.  

  4. If your child is great at school and not at home, take it as a bit of a win. They have learnt the skills they need and can demonstrate them.

  5. If your child has a phone or online device, and it is not being closely monitored, you don’t know their pyjama size. They are being exposed to experiences and people who are growing your child’s world without your knowledge. We are overprotective in the real world but not protective enough online.

  6. Remember to leave your ego and needs out of your child’s development. Normalise your child pushing away from you. Your child is not your friend. Kristina cited the example of parents who get upset when their teen has a romantic partner, or develops a close group of friends, and they feel left out, so they then impose unrealistic boundaries. It’s more common than you’d think!


A final thought…


In time, your kids are going to do their own shopping and choose their own pyjamas, or not wear any at all. That’s brilliant. That is the goal. When they don’t need you anymore, your job is done.


Until then, get comfortable with discomfort, and reach out for help when you need it. Your friends want to be there for you. It feels good to be useful to those we care about.






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