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Looking For Advice To Give Parents With A Five Year Old

This 5 year old has a lot of energy, is curious and strong-willed. The parents have tried giving choices, using when/then & either/or with some success. They are saying that now he seems to be just doing whatever he wants no matter what the consequence. They say it is like he just doesn’t care what they say. Does anyone have any advice I can share with them in addition to what we have already tried?  I feel most of the problem lies with the parents who can be inconsistent and impatient although their son tends to tax them in these areas also. I am looking for some fresh perspectives.

Thank you for any suggestions you can offer,

Sandy Kraus

21 Comments to “Looking For Advice To Give Parents With A Five Year Old”
  1. Hello Sandy:

    I believe that there are few parental strategies that combined help parents to deal with a strong-will child. The following strategies worked for me:

    1. Stay the rule ( Ex. in our family we don’t hit other children)
    2. Time-out when a child choose not to follow a rule. (A minute per year of age)
    3. Use positive reinforcement when a child follows a rule.
    4. Apply consequences in a consistent way. (to make it easier use count until 3 and then move on with a time out when a child is not following a stated rule). A child eventually will expect to have negative consequences for negative behaviors. As parents, we are trying to teach good habits and values.
    5. Whenever parent can, he/she should celebrate positive behaviors to encourage and support desired changes (very important).
    6. Make a plan with your child to celebrate when progress, so the child has something positive to look forward.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Carolina Arroyo-Solveson

  2. We are looking for a child care provider for our 1 year old daughter.

    I am going to interview some potentionals and need help with what questions to ask them.
    What should I be looking for?.

  3. A behavioral evaluation by a developmental pediatrician is where I’d start. A developmental ped has enhanced training and a board certification. Contact local pediatric society for a list of them in Your area. The child may have difficulty with executive function, attention, etc that makes it difficult for him to respond to typical parenting.

  4. Have you talked to them about attachment? The concept, the importance. In these situations I always look back to the relationship between child and parents. Children want to please their parents unless experience has told them that their parents aren’t always on their side, and aren’t always looking out for them. I understand the frustration and need to feel like they have control, but in this situation that’s the last place I would be looking.

    I would focus on connection, times when they are having special time as a family, where the child gets to pick what they are going to do and they do it, no interruptions, no adult talk, no phones, tv’s, etc. just solid connection time. If you can get them to bump that up, way up daily if possible at the minimum that should be happening weekly the change with following rules will follow. But if the child doesn’t feel like his parents are ever letting him be in charge, or ever entering his world his willingness to constantly be in their world with their rules goes way way down.

  5. Running a household at 5 is challenging. There are some rituals and routines parents need to determine. Certainly choice making is a skill to be developed. However, there are some non negotiables that will provide emotional scaffolding to and for the child. These Reds and Greens in my view need to be consistent expectations from both parents. The 5 year old will be able to focus on growing up and learning skills that develop self competence and self discipline.

  6. Hi Sandy,

    Please consider that you are right on target and should trust your instincts…

    “I feel most of the problem lies with the parents who can be inconsistent and impatient”

    The problem is crystal clear. They do not have any credibility with this child so he does not believe them….period. They are”impatient” which speaks to a loss of self control that reinforces his negative behaviors on top of their lack of consistency.

    The solution is pretty clear here. The parents need to change their behavior. This 5 year old is stuck in the terrible 2’s as are many children today right up until they leave for college..(and beyond).

    Choices are fine but only if they are offered once which circumvents manipulation. (never with food by the way.) After this, the parents decide for the child immediately every time providing no wiggle room.

    Good luck….


  7. Sandy,
    Perhaps you have already talked with them about this, but I would suggest that they tell him what he CAN do as opposed to what he CAN’T do. For example, if he is throwing things indoors tell him that they are going outside so he can throw things (and give him something that is OK to throw). He needs a lot of attention during those moments that things are OK or going well.

    Additionally, the suggestion about relationship with the parents was on target. Are the parents responding by yelling? (I know that would be my first inclination.) If they can calm themselves and respond logically, instead of emotionally, the situation may not ramp up quite as high.

    For the parents sanity I would emphasize self-care for them and a heavy focus on those times (minutes, seconds!) where they enjoyed being with him. Try to find out what is working (anything–even if it’s as small as he sleeps through the night) and enlarge on that.

    I hope this is helpful to you and the family.


  8. I see from what you have stated is three-fold. First, I think you are dealing with a strong-willed child with parents who are not as consistent. I suggest you all read together The Strong-willed Child by James Dobson so the parents can gain some insights.
    Second I think this child is living in a world without boundaries. I suggest beginning with a set household routine that does very little wavering. Then suggest a rules and consequences chart. I like suggesting this because it starts with the family sitting down together and creating a family plan for rules. I also like that the whole family participates and any family member who breaks the rule pays the consequence.
    Third, I agree with Patricia I think there are some attachment issues. However, If my suspicions are correct then I think the family taking turns choosing what they do will teach him that everyone needs to get what they want sometimes.
    Barb Harvey

  9. I also think of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s work with spirited, strong willed kids….looking for strategies this little person can learn to manage impulses. Swinging, jumping, chewing gum, etc. Also, checking diet and physical inside issues. We often express outside how we’re feeling inside.
    One other thought, the family system. What’s going on in mom and dad’s lives that might be stirring up emotions in the kids.
    Sue Harrington, Parent Educator

    Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.
    Sue Harrington

  10. Sandy and all,
    Pediatric assessment a good idea but I agree that the problem and solution is more likely to be found in the parents and their parenting.
    There is a book Holding Time, not new, that has interesting insights on and strategies for fostering parent-child bonds and teaching the child (self)-control.
    Eve Sullivan

  11. Parents Forum
    Cambridge MA

    I believe all of the suggestions offered thus far have great merit. I do think that the parents recognize their need for help, which is a good place to begin. One thing that occurs to me is that the child may be seeking attention of any kind. Thus, when parents respond to negative behavior in whatever way they choose, the child is getting his need for attention met. If they can reign in their responses to the more minor negative behaviors (ignore) and provide lots of positive attention for the times when things are going well, this may help him to redirect his behaviors towards more positive activities. Given the description of the situation, this will be very difficult for them, but it might be one piece of the puzzle.

    Denise J. Brandon, PhD

  12. I agree that the issue lies with the parents. I am reading a terrific book “Keeping Your Child in Mind” by Claudia Gold a pediatric pediatrician who also has a certificate in Infant Parent Mental Health. Talking with the parents to find out what has happened with previous behavioral challenges for behavior to escalate to the current level. I think Claudia’s book will give some good ideas for you and the parents.

    Linda Storm

  13. I second Linda Storm’s suggestion. I was crafting the same response wehen hers came in!! Increasing reflective function is key for child and parent self-regulation. Claudia Gold also has a great website

    Susan Averna

  14. Hi Sandy

    Sorry I accidentally deleted the chain of response. So forgive me if I am repeating other suggestions:

    -is the child in day care, preschool, kindergarten? What are teachers and other care providers saying? Grandparents view?

    -are home visits/observations possible?

    -does the child play well with other children? Siblings?

    -This five year old’s social-emotional immaturity and immunity to a desire to please parents is a challenge. Are other areas of development on target?
    I have worked on home visits and there is usually a combination of factors in these situations so one answer is not likely to fix the situation.

    Filter thru all the suggestions and use what you think best to further question and investigate how to best help this family. Best, Mary Maher

  15. In my experience, sometimes giving parents one more book to read that they have to try to decipher and put into action sometimes results in parents who feel even more overwhelmed.

    I often recommend the book ‘Raising a Thinking Child’ and the ‘I Can Problem Solve’ workbook by Myrna B. Shure. The workbook gives parents action steps ‘they can use now’ while the book offers the background needed to improve their parenting practices and become more consistent.

    If parents begin working through the workbook exercises they may see immediate (positive) changes which helps them feel a little more in control as they begin to learn the steps necessary to become more consistent in their parenting practices.

    Hope this helps,

  16. Sandy,

    Thank you for reaching out to this group. Like others have stated, I believe that the parents would benefit from creating a focus on connection within their family. In our work we provide a very specific set of tools to help parents firmly set limits with warmth while building connection. We also teach for parents to find ongoing support for themselves. As parents pour all of their energy and love into their children they can become quickly depleted and/or triggered by their own hurts and need a safe place to pour their frustrations, fears, and stress in order to be more available to their children.

    In general we believe children thrive when well-connected with their parents or caregiver. Off-track behavior is simply an indication that the connection has been broken or there is built up stress or fear within the child (even from early, ‘forgotten’ hurts). The child’s off-track behavior is a strong signal and opportunity for a parent to move in, offer a firm limit and then listen to the child’s hurts and offer space for healing and connection. It is not always easy work, but the results are amazing.

    At Hand in Hand Parenting we offer an online course called Setting Limits and Building Cooperation that is designed for this situation. Here is a link,

    Here are a couple of articles, one long and one short, that deal with Setting Limits.—Setting-Limits-with-the-Vigorous-Snuggle


  17. Hi Sandy:
    The approach we are taking is to help parents completely reframe their thinking about their child’s behaviour – from trying to ‘control’ it to helping them better understand what children need at all their various ages, and how they can work with them to help them develop as they need, using a problem-solving approach when conflict arises. This is more work than a quick answer, but it is so much more rewarding for everyone in the long run. The approach is not new – it is generically called positive discipline, and it is the foundation of many parenting programs. It does not rely on punishments, but rather problem-solving. A good resource for your family might be Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting, by Dr. Joan Durrant (recently renamed from PD; What it is and How to do it), as it is a step by step breakdown of a very simple framework for families to better understand what discipline really is. It is designed as a self-study book, with exercises that parents can complete to help them build their skills and feel success. It also covers child development from birth to 18 years, illustrating how developmental stages build on each other. You and the parents can download the book for free at so you can have a look at it to see if it will work for you.

    There are a number of other complementary resources with this approach, particularly the Positive Discipline series by Jane Nelsen et al, PET, How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk, Discipline Without Distress, Terrific Toddlers, etc, etc. The basis of them all is about understanding behaviour (vs. controlling it), building the relationship between parents and children, and moving past a reward/punishment model to enhancing communication and managing inevitable conflict with a problem solving approach.

    Hope this is helpful.

  18. I wonder about several things…

    Is this a problem just at home, or home and school?

    If just at home;

    I wonder if either parent has an abuse background. In other words, was
    either parent parented harshly? I see in some of these situations that
    parents were were either abused or parented harshly have difficulty
    setting limits, lest they see themselves as controlling/abusive. hence
    they become inadvertently permissive. It is important to explain that
    being in control for the benefit of the child is not the same as being
    controlling for one’s own gratification.

    I also wonder if both parents have difficulty managing their child or if
    the challenge is predominantly with one parent. If only with one parent
    and no particular parental history of abuse, then I wonder about abusive
    behavior between the parents. Is one parent abusive of the other? In these
    situations the child can learn to run roughshod over the victimized
    parent. The victimized parent can appear as a dishrag next to the in
    charge behavior of he abusive partner.

    If at home and school:

    If at home and school, then I wonder about hearing loss as well as
    auditory processing disorder.

    If there is a history of recurrent ear infections when the child was
    younger (multiple prescriptions for antibiotics; considered or followed
    through with tubes in ear) then I would have the child tested by an
    audiologist who cont=ducts the specific testing to assess auditory
    processing disorder. In this situation, the child hears, but the brain has
    been miswired due to impaired hearing during the earlier developmental
    stage of higher order language development in the brain.

    You can easily conduct a rudimentary hearing screen yourself, which I do
    with all young children. Present this as the “hearing game”. Stand behind
    the child and rub your forefinger and thumb together over the center of
    his head. Ask if he can hear the rubbing sound. Rub more gently until the
    child cannot hear the sound. If you can still hear the sound, yet the
    child cannot, then have the child tested professionally. You can also rub
    your fingers a little to the right of center at the top of the child’s
    head and then a little to the left of center. Ask the child which ear the
    sound is heard from best. It may give a clue as to hearing dominance or
    unilateral hearing loss. gain, if you discover a bilateral difference,
    send for a professional evaluation.

    Hope these suggestions help.

    Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

  19. Aloha Sandy

    After reading all of the responses so far I’m going to add my thoughts. I work with many of these families in their homes and have found the following ideas useful.

    I agree that you should talk to them about the child’s behavior at whatever group setting he might be in. If he doesn’t display as many of these behaviors in the group setting then I think it’s more of a parenting issue.

    It sounds like they are all over the place with discipline and may not be on the same page. I would start by talking to them about one or two behaviors they would like to get a handle on first. If they try to change everything at once they will only get frustrated. Help them develop a very clear, easy to understand rule about the behavior and decide on the consequence if he doesn’t follow the rule. Help them understand that both have to enforce and follow through with the rule.

    One thing I often find with families is they ask their children to do what they want, rather than telling them. “Can you put your toys away?” Instead of “It’s time to put your toys away.” Have them practice giving statements.

    Remind them to pay attention when his behavior is correct.

    I also check on the amount of sleep children get. I’m wiling to bet he’s not getting the recommended 10 – 11 hours at night.

    After they get a handle on one or two behaviors, they can then start working on the rest, and they usually come easier, once they have found and taken back their parental authority.

    I often recommend Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book “Kids, Parents and Power Struggles.” I have found that parents have found it to be helpful.

    Kathy Bentley

  20. I want to thank everyone who offered their thoughts and recommendations to my situation. This is an amazing group who gives wonderful wisdom and insight into parent-child relations. You all have given me much to think about. Some new, some already tried – but both appreciated. Thank you again for your many suggestions!!


  21. I feel their pain. My 5 year old is quite dynamic and the term “ADHD” has been tossed around. However, we have also had some major transitions and incidences that have affected his behavior including bullying at school and family changes. Three things have made the biggest impact for my son. First….routine. knowing what and when proves vital to his day. Changes are noted as soon as possible. Second… expectations and rules. They are firm but flexible as needed. We stress universal kindness, respect and communication. The biggest and most immediate impact came with a change in diet. I’ve knocked out as much artificial everything as possible, avoid dyes and sugars of all types, and go organic when I can afford to. He feels better, focuses better and his energy level is much more appropriate. I know this can be a tall order for parents that are not quite ready to put a lot of energy into it. Small steps….make a routine first. Two or three easy rules or expectations.

    Kerry Fair