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My 5-year-old's behavior is changing

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

Since starting full-day kindergarten, my 5-year-old has had a complete change in her behavior! She was a child I would brag about how blessed I was that she was so easygoing and laid back. I never had to raise my voice or ask her to do something more than once or twice. Well now she is a kid on the edge! She uses words like stupid, dumb, damn, idiot and is more aggressive and full of anger it seems at times. I am at a loss as to why, except for the obvious. I know she is still adjusting to the full-day schedule and I have made some changes in my work. I used to run a full-day, in-home daycare program that she was in with our friend of three years. (You could say they were like siblings.) Now he no longer attends and my daughter only sees the children that are still in care two days a week just two hours each day. I know these are all big changes for a 5-year-old. I guess I just want someone to tell me this is all normal and not to worry. I also want some advice how to discipline as I've never really had to.

Answer:

Yes, it is normal for children to have an adjustment period transitioning from preschool to kindergarten. As a daycare provider, you have undoubtedly witnessed this yourself. In fact, you may have soothed other mothers regarding this issue, but it is different when it is your child. You forget and worry. I'm not clear if you are still running your daycare from home or not. But, even if you have reduced your hours, it would be understandable that your daughter would be angry that her friends get to stay with you and she doesn't.

Her new vocabulary is certainly a concern. Talk with her teacher to find out how your daughter expresses herself during the school day, and how she is handling the use of inappropriate language and behavior in the classroom. Set limits with your daughter's use of "damn," "idiot" and so forth. You may want to encourage her to express her anger more appropriately. Storybooks are great at this age to launch a discussion about feelings and you can use the story to give examples of what behaviors or solutions you do or don't like. Try Mean Soup by Betsy Everitt for expressing anger, and Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn for school anxiety.

In regards to your discipline question, I imagine you have been disciplining her since she was testing her independence at age 2 or 3. Clearly she knows your limits, and that is why she usually does what she is told the first time. So, although your parenting skills may need to grow and change as she does, give yourself credit for what has worked for you in the past. For additional parenting resources try books by: Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish; Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott; and Lawrence E. Shapiro, PH.D.

A reader recently wrote in with this comment about the article:

"This article is somewhat helpful, but it assumes the parent knows how to discipline, and that the child is responsive to it. My 4-year-old hasn't had to deal with any transitions lately, but he's been testing limits a lot! If he doesn't do what we ask, or mouths off to us, he has to go to the 'naughty spot' for 4-5min (like a time-out). Recently when we warn him that if he repeats his behavior he will have to go to the naughty spot, he just says 'well, I will just get up and run around and scream'. If we then threaten to send him to his room instead, he says 'well, I will just kick/hit the walls/floor/door and scream and jump on my bed and throw all my blankets/stuffed animals on the floor.' This talking back to us makes us very angry and his defiance leaves us wondering how to punish him. The last time he pulled this stunt, I made him sit in a cardboard box in a dark room, explaining that if he doesn't respect our house and family, then we can take them away from him. Also, we explained that if he throws/breaks toys, we will take them away and give (donate) them to other children that will appreciate them. Of course, I have no idea what the psychological impact of having him sit in a cardboard box is (note: there is no top on the box), but there has got to be a better way! We have even tried spankings, but he just says 'well, if you can hit me, then I can hit you/Daddy/my brother, then'. Yes, this is a 4-year-old talking! He is extremely bright, and that worries me. My husband and I work all day so he and his brother go to a daycare center. I've asked how they discipline, but they just use time-outs and he seems to want to please his teachers and earn respect of his peers, so he doesn't act out when he's punished at daycare. I'm worried since I don't want this behavior to continue or escalate, or be carried over into kindergarten. Please help!"

Debra Collins responds:

Parents use tactics that are not helpful and often counterproductive when they are stressed. I think you have answered your own question as to the psychological impact this is having on your child. Your "punishment" can have either one of two outcomes. Children respond by either becoming withdrawn or acting out. Clearly isolating him and threatening him is creating a power struggle. It is also not a safe method and could get out of control very easily. He may want to please his teachers and peers because the environment and discipline method feels better to him. He is trying to let you know, by his behavior, that your relationship needs help. Children that are very bright and articulate can be a challenge to parents because it is not clear how much they truly understand. Their verbal skills are often more advanced than their life experiences and coping skills. I strongly urge you to get support for learning effective discipline skills. You can look for parenting classes in your area. Many large managed healthcare programs offer classes, or you can contact your county's mental health office for referrals. Private family therapists also offer parenting skills support.

Next: Inside your kindergartner's brain

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.