My Son Keeps Head-Butting Me, But It’s Because He Knows I Love Him

My four-year-old son attends pre-school five mornings a week. I pick him up each day at 12 noon. I have to line up with all the other parents against a wall and wait for the pre-school class teacher to let out the children one by one. I bite my tongue when, day in day out, the same two women walk past the line and stand at the front, glaring at anyone who looks like they might challenge their right to push in. I try not to judge too harshly the woman who turns up in her PJs and I make small talk about the weather with those around me.

The door opens, and Mrs W starts to let out one child at a time. Each one runs to their respective carer with gleeful shouts of “Mummy, look what I’ve got!” or “It’s Nanny, yay!”, and I wait my turn.

Then I see him by the door. Mrs W points me out to him. He looks at me. I look back at him and wave. There’s a brief pause, a slight scowl, and then he runs towards me and headbutts me in the leg.

He’s Really Not That Bad

Angry little boy isolated on white background

He sounds charming right? He is actually a pretty awesome kid, even if I am biased. He excels at pre-school, having quickly moved ahead of his classmates with phonics. He’s obsessed with all things space, and can tell you all about the different plants. He’s adorable around his younger sister, and in playgrounds and soft play centres he can be found helping those smaller than him climb onto the toys.

He’s never been in trouble at pre-school or at the childminder’s who has looked after him since he was ten-months-old. All in all, he’s really not that bad. Until he’s with me.

“He’s Never Like That For Me”

Angry boy with sword

The headbutt over, he continues to scowl at me during the five-minute walk home. I ask him what he did that morning in school. “I don’t know” he replies in a manner that Kevin and Perry would be proud of. We get home, I feed him, and he starts to cheer up. Then something else upsets him and I am Public Enemy Number 1 again. There’s huffing, shouting, more headbutting, whining, crying, and a desperate search for chocolate (for me). I look at the clock and there’s still four more hours to go until my husband returns. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

Later in the week, I ask Mrs W if there are any issues at school. “None,” she says, “He’s a lovely boy to teach.” I tell my childminder about his tantrums. “Well, he’s never like that for me,” she says. She doesn’t recognise the child I describe.

When my husband returns home, the raging, angry child disappears and is replaced by the sweet little boy who loves talking about planets. When Nana and Grandad are left in charge, they get a boy eager to help them in the garden and around the house. I describe some of his behaviours and they look at me incredulously. “He’s never like that for me.”

A Safe Space To Misbehave

Black and white photo of a boy in an angry grimassy closeup.

If this sounds familiar to you it’s because it’s not that uncommon. Many parents – mothers in particular – complain that their publicly angelic child is a devil in private. Dr. Ann Corwin, also known as, the Parenting Doctor  has a theory that is shared by many parenting and child development experts. She argues that children misbehave more for their parents because their parents provide them with a safe, loving place to express themselves and test their boundaries. When children act up for their parents but not for others, it’s because they know that their parents’ love is unconditional, and so they feel much more comfortable being themselves.

A Pressure Cooker

angry hipster boy with steam coming out of ears

My son’s devilish behaviour started when he began pre-school. I felt pretty lucky, having avoided the terrible twos and troublesome threes, instead having a charming little boy who was generally quite laid back, unless tired or hungry. Then he turned four, started pre-school at the same time, and a monster was unleashed.

It’s devastating when I am faced with this outpouring of aggression whilst all around me I here the words “He’s never like that for me.” Which is why I take a lot of comfort in the work by Dr Corwin and others. I see my son like a pressure cooker. He goes to pre-school in the morning and feels obliged to hold it together. He can’t run wild there because he doesn’t feel that comfortable. He holds his emotions in and buries them away. Then pre-school finishes and he sees me – his safe space. He finally feels free to express himself. The pressure cooker erupts, the steam is let out, and I get a mild bruise on my leg.

Unconditional Love

Mother comforting son

Unsurprisingly, he’s much better during the school holidays, where he is able to relax all day, every day. Many parents dread the school holidays, but I look forward to them because I know that’s when I get my sweet little boy back. However, just knowing that much of his poor behaviour with me is a reflection of how secure he feels with me, makes me feel a lot more positive about the situation. It also makes it easier to manage for both of us.

Recognising the reasons for his behaviour has enabled me to take steps to address it. I know that nursery and childminder pick ups are a flashpoint for his behaviour, so I take something with me, like a toy, to serve as a distraction. And, when I hear the words “He’s never like that for me,” I smile to myself and think “That’s because he knows how much I love him.”