I'm a single mom and lost my partner when my son was 6 months old. My son is going to be 5 in June and most of the time when we are alone he is a very well behaved boy.

The moment we are in a crowd or at a party or just visiting, he starts acting up. He doesn't listen, is crying, screaming, blatantly defies me. It comes to a point where I get so angry with him that I want to end up crying. Then when we are alone or on our way home, he will tell me that he's sorry for being naughty.

It's not that he's uncomfortable in a crowd, believe me he loves it. He just nags and cries and is extra naughty when tired. Maybe I spoilt him too much or maybe because it's just the two of us, so he always just wants my attention. The problem isn't the attention, it's the fact that he blatantly doesn't listen to me and is just extra naughty when we around other people.

I spank when he's naughty, I take away privileges, or I send him to the room for a time out, where he usually will end up falling asleep. After he gets punished I then tell him why he was punished, because he knows what is right and what is wrong. I am at my wits' end and don't know what to do anymore.

  • 3
    Has your son ever said he does not want to go to the party, or is he happy and eager to go? Does he show any signs of clinging to you -- as in he gets uncomfortable if you are occupied on the phone or in another room?
    – WRX
    May 8, 2017 at 12:55
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    Have you ever had him tested for autism or other spread-spectrum disorders? These outbursts may be outside his control, and the crowd aspect tells me that he may be mildly autistic. Does he get scared at loud noises? Does he have or had any speech/learning delays? Does he have a hard time identifying emotions, especially in others? Sounds like a good talk to have with your pediatrician.
    – Ron Beyer
    May 8, 2017 at 15:38
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    Check with a licensed medical professional and see if your child has any sort of developmental disorders, such as ADHD, ODD, CD, Separation Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Aspergers, etc. Some of these may be applicable, and if your son has any one of them (or doesn't) then the answer to your question may be radically different, and something you should speak to your doctor about.
    – Anoplexian
    May 8, 2017 at 22:18
  • Is there a significant difference to your reaction when you're at home or at a party? E.g. is punishment/reward immediate at home, and a couple hours delayed when at a party? Does his behavior change when he's at a party without you?
    – Peter
    May 9, 2017 at 13:32
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    If he's tired, maybe you should take him home and put him to bed... Kids need their rest. You should be conscientious of that when you go out. Be courteous to your son and respect his sleeping hours, both nap times and evening bed time... and remember that just because it's not his bed time, that doesn't mean it's a good time to be out amidst people. Tiring kids can be grumpy... you shouldn't expect them to behave well - they haven't learned out to fake it.
    – Catija
    May 10, 2017 at 21:30

4 Answers 4


From your initial question and later comment I'm concerned that you're not showing proper respect to your son. Being a parent is a matter of mutual respect. We expect our children to listen to us and do what we ask and we must be considerate of them, too.

If your child is acting up and, when put in his room (or a quiet place at a friend's home), he falls asleep, it sounds like you're not respecting his sleep schedule. If your child has regular nap times and/or a regular bed time, you must show him the respect of being home at those times or by providing him a quiet place to sleep if you're not at home.

If you have an event you would like to go to that is in the vicinity of his bed or nap time - don't take him. Leave him home with a sitter or don't go to the event. Punishing your five-year-old for acting up because he is trying to get your attention because it's his bed time and he's tired and you're not respecting his bed time is mean. He can not control his moods or actions yet - he's only five. He probably doesn't even understand why he's acting up.

By respecting him, you allow him to be at his best when you go out in public and you save yourself having to struggle with his acting up.

Respect comes from both sides.


My 5 year old son can get like this. He's typically an obedient, loving angel when it's just us and then a much more disobedient kid when out in public. He does it because he's a clown and loves the attention but it's similar to your scenario in that it is still disobedience.

I ask myself these tough questions:

  1. Am I doing anything to make it harder for him to obey? Has he been out all day? Is he being made to stay up late? Have I made him so tired it's nearly impossible for him to obey? Am I saying things like "we're leaving in 5 minutes!" only to get him 20 minutes later? Does he misbehave lightly and I ignore him, then I become disproportionately agitated when he misbehaves greatly?
  2. Have I made sure that he understands my expectations? Have I adequately prepped him for the event? Have I told him how I expect him to act with myself and others? Have we gone through and "practiced" these things together (kids typically enjoy this). Have I made the boundaries clear and told him what the consequences will be if those boundaries are broken?

Example: My son and I will be going to party later where our friends will be, his and mine. In the car on the way I will say "Now [son], we're going to a party and there will be lots of kids there. I expect you not to run or jump on any of the adults." I then wait for him to say, "OK, dad." Then I say things like "And when I say 'time to go!' what are you supposed to say?" Then my son says "I dunno..." at which point I say "You're supposed to say 'Ok, dad!' then stop what you're doing and come to me." I then wait for him to say "Ok, dad!"

This is an example of explaining something to him, showing him how to do it, then practicing it with him. I do this with all my children constantly every day. Doing something like this will probably help your son and yourself.

  • You have my upvote, but the underlying problem is that her son can't say "Okay, dad!" What is a single mother supposed do when she is not inherently masculine enough to command such respect? Some women are able to pull this off, but it is asking a lot of women who aren't naturally like that.
    – user27219
    May 1, 2018 at 15:33
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    "inherently masculine" equals "respect"? What? You are saying that women should not expect children, even their own to respect them?
    – swbarnes2
    May 1, 2018 at 17:47
  • Fathers are generally more respected when it comes to disciplining children. Men are scarier and taken more seriously. Women who break down and cry out of frustration just aren't. Some women can manage, but they aren't asking this question on a parenting Q&A.
    – user27219
    May 2, 2018 at 6:30
  • @iyrin My wife doesn't have any issues. I suppose if a parent (mother or father) doesn't demand respect from their child then they probably don't demand obedience.
    – LCIII
    May 2, 2018 at 15:15
  • @LCIII Are you saying you're not in the picture or that you don't support your wife and she is disciplining the child by herself while you are playing Nintendo Switch?
    – user27219
    May 4, 2018 at 6:07

I believe I know where you're coming from- it isn't necessarily late, or early, it can be any time of day that you're seeing other people (or have visitors to yours) and he'll be perfect when he's alone.....but then acts up when other people are in the picture?

I've had this. Plenty! Mine will be the darling cherub from a classical painting right up until he goes to the hairdressers and gets attention and talked to by the staff, the same in the shops- parties or lunch with others he's much the same as well.

Now I like to think that by parenting standards I'm reasonable- his Mother doesn't believe in spanking so that was out the window from day dot and I know he'd tell her if I did, so that's not part of the equation.

Mine tends to get very excited around other people- he'll be a chatterbox that won't stop, enjoy every lick of attention he's lavished with and generally soaks it up like a diva- he loves it. If other kids are around, he'll be even worse but by kids standards, he's fine enough just...boistrous, I guess you could say.

The only things I've found that do work are talking and setting a precedent/example- for example, I speak to mine before we go out, explain where we're going and who we're seeing but state that he needs to behave and remember, they'll want him to come again if he's a good boy and nice and polite- but not if he's naughty, loud and rude. If he can't behave then we'll have to come home which would be a shame.

Works a charm, he tried to push his boundaries once and when we was put back in the car realised I wasn't kidding and couldn't apologise enough.

The same has worked in the Cinema, going to bigger parties etc but usually if there's other kids, he keeps himself occupied with them so won't cause anymore fuss than they will.

I've found that if you also spend some extra time with them beforehand and after (or a little minor bribery such as offering to do something with them they enjoy afterwards) helps as well, as obviously the payoff of doing something they like before/after will sweeten the deal for them.

They are, after all, little people- they love and crave your attention, so if you do go to some of these events and they aren't getting what they feel they want or need, they can and will play up in order to get it. Getting this right so that it isn't "negatively" sought behaviour by playing up rather than behaving as they know they'll then get what they'd like can be tricky.


I'm sorry this is super long. I suck at being concise :.\ It's possible that he's acting up because he loves it. Just because he loves it doesn't mean he's not overstimulated, and that could be even more so if he's excited. It's definitely a tough hurdle, and a big part of the solution will be him growing out of it. Of course, you need some coping strategies in the meantime. Remember that any training will take much longer than you want to become ingrained, and that, even if you can elicit the behavior you want now because he's afraid of being spanked, that only lasts as long as he's afraid. Once he's not afraid, he won't have learned lessons about how to regulate his own behavior. Also, think of spanking this way:

  1. A child who is afraid is already using up some of his emotional regulation just being afraid.
  2. Punishing negative behavior does not teach the kid what he should be doing, and he may know what he should not be doing but be at a loss for what else to do.
  3. Punishing negative behavior--particularly using a method with unusually strong emotional stimuli, like physical pain coming from a beloved authority figure--makes the child focus on the negative behavior. Focusing on negative behavior, even in trying to avoid it, will always be more likely to eventually result in that exact behavior.

That said, my first suggestion to you is to try reacting with as much calmness as possible, because he takes cues from you. The wilder he gets, the calmer you make your body and the quieter you make your voice. This also naturally leads you to sit down, draw him to you, and talk closer into his ear. That also gives him something very clear to focus on, in an environment that may be overwhelming his external and internal senses, and it brings him close to your body and your warmth. It's naturally comforting, because it's similar to a hug and makes him feel more connected to you. From there, your first job is to keep in mind that you're a team. Right now, I think you feel like you're swimming in the ocean and he's a shark. But in fact, from his perspective, he's swimming in the ocean and you're a lifeguard. He says he's sorry on the way home because he really is. Our kids live and die, psychologically, on pleasing us--it's really pretty heartbreaking. But because of being kids, knowing what's the right thing to do is very different from being able to do it, and sometimes the only way they have to tell us what's going on is in a way that we struggle to understand.

You and he both have habits that are going to take a while to break. The more you can control his environment, the easier it will be to begin changing his behavior. Take him into another room or outside to talk about what you want him to do. Make any punishments clear ahead of time, because after a punishment, the window for associating it with the behavior is already closed. Make his environment as predictable as possible, because a predictable, controlled environment allows kids to feel like they have a measure of control over what happens, which is the first step in them choosing the behavior you want.

Finally, 5 is probably-old-enough-but-just-barely to start really talking with him about how to address problems together. Kids love to come up with their own solutions. Now, frankly, his solutions are mostly going to be unworkable to say the least. So you can start by saying--especially ahead of time, that can help a lot--"Now, when we go to this party, we all want to have a good time, and that means we have to work together. I need to know that you will hear me and cooperate with me when I tell you something. So, if I tell you something and you don't hear me, how should we solve that?" At first, he might not even have an idea. If not, give it a nice long moment, and then say, "I think it would help if I hold your hand and get closer to you and then say it again. What do you think?" Leading is not bad here. Then you can say, "Okay, then if I do that, are you willing to look at me and say 'Yes, Mommy'?"

There are lots of these kinds of dialogues available that can help you have a plan for when one of these situations happens, under lots of different names. Try looking for books and YouTube videos about "Positive Parenting" and "Peaceful Parenting". The goal for you is to remember that the kid's behavior does not mean he has the same emotional state that you would if you were acting like that, so you want to empathize with his emotions and motivations while dissociating your emotions from his behavior. Naturally, this also requires you to be patient with yourself. You have to know that it's okay to forgive yourself for mistakes, even if other people are judging you. F*** 'em. You and your kid are the most important people you have a responsibility to, and it might sound selfish, but I promise you, if you prioritize you and your son's happiness, everybody else's experience of you will be more pleasant, not less.

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