Why is Public and Private Behavior so Different?

My teen and husband act so differently away from home.

Posted Apr 27, 2012

Dear Dr. G.,

My teen  and husband are really confusing the heck out of me. First, let's talk about my teenager who is a young 14.  She is rude and irritable with me much of the time. This is a recent development this year. I understand that this may be because she is a teen and they act this way. What I am having a really hard time understanding is why her teachers and her friends' parents see her as such a sweet goody two shoes. When I run into another mother who tells me how wonderful my daughter is I just can't believe it. I wonder if they are talking about the same kid. Likewise, when I go to teacher conferences and the teachers tell me that she is so polite I smile but I'm really frustrated and angry about why she acts that way at school and in a totally different way with me.

I have to also tell you that my husband is also loved by his co-workers and people in the community and they would never believe the moodiness that he shows his family. Now, I don't think that I'm perfect but I do my best to treat my family as well as I treat friends and co-workers.

I do not understand this difference in behavior for both my teenager and husband and would appreciate if you could shed some light.

A Confused Mother and Wife

Dear Mother and Wife,

You raise some EXCELLENT points that we have probably all struggled with to some extent.

First, let's address the issue of the difference between public and private behavior. Why is it that people are frequently on their best behavior outside of the home? If you polled a large group of individuals of all ages they would probably tell you that it is because people feel comfortable enough to vent at home where they feel secure that they will be accepted no matter what. I, on the other hand, feel that this is only one factor that goes into the equation. I feel, unfortunately, that people feel that it is okay to behave sloppy and sometimes insensitively at home because this is sort of an unwritten social rule. At work, people wouldn't dare to scream,yell, and be insulting because they don't want to lose their jobs. And,people don't insult-let's say-their friends' in-laws like they sometimes do in marriages because they don't want to be friendless. So perhaps individuals should me more sensitive at home and not let their guard of behaving sensitively down so quickly. Maybe the divorce rate would be lower if public and private behavior were matched a little more closely. And the old adage that you hurt the ones you love needs to be tossed out the window immediately. That is ridiculous and is often used as an excuse to justify unkind and hurtful behavior.

Regarding your husband's behavior—I think that you need to have a talk with him and explain how his behavior affects you. While you're in the midst of this conversation find out if you are doing anything that is upsetting him. Do this soon and often so tension doesn't build up and lead to insurmountable problems.

Regarding your teenager-it is so common for teens to be surly at home and lovely outside of the home. The good thing about this is that at least we know that they have the skill set to know how to act politely and in a socially acceptable way. What happens with teens is that in their clumsy attempts to separate from parents they become irritable and quiet. In fact, they often cut off parents because they are afraid that if they opened up to you they might upset,disappoint,or even bore you. In my book—Teenage as a Second Language-A Parents Guide to Becoming Bilingual I provide all kinds of tips about how to reduce that irritable and surly style. I would love to explain it all here but it would take me 256 pages.

Take comfort in knowing that there are ways to get your teen to come around. I promise. I hope that this has been helpful.

Good Luck,


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