5 Year Old Becoming VERY Defiant...

Updated on August 30, 2010
R.D. asks from Richmond, VA
13 answers

My girls, ages 5 and 6, are good kids, REALLY good kids, until recently... and I'm a tough love mom. If the girls both get in trouble for something, my 6 year old immediately says 'Sorry mom, I won't do it again' and then she'll correct the problem. The 5 year old will just STARE at me with this ATTITUDE. If I ask her 'Did you hear what I just said??' and she'll kind of shrug her shoulders with the same defiant 'I don't care' attitude. I'll say 'MADISON! What do you say?!' and she'll finally roll her eyes and mumble 'yes ma'am'... WHAT IS THIS?! I want to slap that look right off her face sometimes!! We also have an 8 month old boy, so I was thinking this is some kind of middle child syndrome, but she adores her brother to pieces. The 5 year old does really really dumb stuff and when I ask her what on EARTH she was thinking, she'll cry 'I don't know!!'... something is going on here. What happened to my sweet, super sensitive baby girl?! Who is this ugly, uncaring defiant child?! I thought I was raising her better than that... There's probably more I needed to include, but I'm at a complete loss right now.

What can I do next?

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answers from Washington DC on

I can't really give you advice other than to tell you that I am going through this with my 6 yo right now. Every time I try to discipline her she seethes and says something smart back to me. She will also try to hit and pinch me and throws tantrums. It has gotten worse the past 2 weeks. If you find something that works, please let me know. I feel like she is in puberty and I have a 13 yo right now.

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answers from San Francisco on

The "I don't know why I did it" is normal at that age.
One other person noted, and I completely agree, that _different children respond differently to the same treatment_.
There is such an emphasis on treating your children the "same" so that it does not to appear that you favor one.
I think this is nonsense! Parents need to tailor their responses according to the child's temperament.
I have one child who manipulates, lashes out and lies at times and needs a quick and firm response, while another of mine is so sensitive and in need of praise that any sense of disapproval causes him to crumble and withdraw. How can I treat them the same? It would do them harm.
They are BOTH good boys, but one is a rule follower, and one believes in making his own rules. The best I can do is to encourage more strength and independence in the rule follower and encourage more mindfulness and caution in the bossy one.
Keep in mind that some qualities that we find so unattractive in children turn in to real assets when they are adults. Manipulators can be great marketing people, sales people, lawyers or politicians, for example.
It's a matter of helping children find a balance between how they want the world to be and how it actually is--to help them understand what they can change about their world, and what they need to just deal with.
The defiant ones are sometimes the really smart ones...watch her carefully, and be honest with her. Realize that you cannot truly control her--but you can let her know what you expect of her, and what the consequences are for not meeting those expectations, and stick to it.

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answers from Washington DC on

what exactly do you mean by 'tough love' mom? it doesn't sound as if any of your kids are actually doing anything that requires tough love. if you simply mean they deal with the consequences of their actions, then good for you and i'm right with you, but forcing them to confess to false contrition doesn't fit into that scenario at all.
sounds like your 6 year old is smart enough and pliant enough to 'work the system.' whether or not she's sorry, she knows what to say to get you off her neck. the 5 year old isn't cut from the same cloth. so why do they expect them both to react the same way?
this 'ugly uncaring defiant' child has a strong will and an admirable refusal to play the game and go along with what she perceives to be unreasonable demands. good for her. you don't get off so easy parenting this girl. she is going to force you to be a responsive, thoughtful, reactive mother. which you are, but you've been sliding with the escape phrase 'i'm a tough love mom' which means you can discipline without empathy. keep going that way and you WILL create a young woman who doesn't like or respect you.
i can't give specific suggestions because you don't share what it is that you do specifically, other than demand an apology.
the tension in the household is probably contributing too. bear in mind that kids pick up on the energy, however much you keep the actual confrontations from occurring in front of them.
i'm not bashing on you, hon. you know i think very highly of you. but this is a situation that requires you to dig deep and use what you know about the fabric of this little girl's psyche to work with her, to help guide her into becoming a fiercely independent no BS nobody messes with me woman, not some kewpie doll. that's not a spirit you want to break. it sounds like YOU are that kind of woman, which makes it all the more difficult for you to deal with another sharing your space. don't think so much about dominating her, as taking her on as your life apprentice.

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answers from San Francisco on

I have a couple of thoughts. The first is preventative and may seem extreme, but it worked for us. We cut out tv during the week and limited it to two hours (videos only) on weekends. I realized that most of the attitude I was seeing came from Disney and Nick shows. If you really look, you will see what bad attitudes even the 'good' kids have on these shows. Sighing, rolling eyes, sarcastic comments, etc. is the norm. As is 'doing dumb stuff' with out any real consequences. When we did start allowing real tv again (not animated videos), we went in gradually and I sat with them to watch. That way I could point out bad attitudes (every little thing) so they could learn to identify it. I also, didn't hestitate to nicely call their friends on it. 'I'm sorry Megan, but we don't allow kids to roll their eyes at adults in this house.' or whatever. I really watched the girl's behavior after playdates as well. I quickly noticed that playing with some kids produced less than desirable behavior/attitudes in my girls, so I pointed it out. 'If you come home from Abby's house with this attitude again, you will not be able to have playdates there for a month.'

The second is the need to address the attitude when it appears. We call it Cinderella Therapy. I sat the girls down to tell/remind them of the story of Cinderella. We talked about what a horrible life of thankless drudgery she had (fun side conversation about the word drudgery!), but what a fabulsous attitude she had. She had to scrub the floors on her knees, do all the cooking and cleaning with no please or thank you, feed the animals, etc., but still she's wakes up singing, she sings while scrubbing that floor, she even finds time to help her friends with a smile! I explained that this showed me that thankless drudgery equals fabulous attitude, so if their attitudes were less than fabulous, I was not providing them with enough thankless drudgery and I would be fixing that with Cinderella Therapy. 'If you roll your eyes, or whatever, they would be given work to do until their attitude improved. I started with a one warning (since this was a new thing) ' One more sigh from you and you'll be getting Cinderella Therapy.' I gave them two rotten jobs to start with. Scrubbing the kitchen and bathroom floors with a small bucket of hot soapy water and a scrubby sponge. Then dry with a towel. (no stand up mop, or 'swiffer'). They had to come back to me when they were done 'I finished the floors. Is there anything else I can do for you?' without attitude. If I felt they had learned the lesson, I would say ' that is all for now.' No thank you, no good job the floor looks great. Just 'that is all'. If they were still giving me sarcasm or anything, I would give another job (windows, weeds, sweep the patio,) until they fixed their attitudes. It took a weekend of this therapy for them to really catch on, but it was an amazing transformation. We had to re-apply this technique every few months to reinforce the fact that bad attitudes are not accepted in this family. Within a year we only had to say 'oh, I think maybe someone needs some Cinderella Therapy' and they'd get an instant smile on their face and appologize. They are now 13 1/2 and 16 years old and the mere threat of Cinderella Therapy fixes them up imediately!
I hope this helps. Be brave!

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answers from Redding on

No offense, R., but from at least one of your other posts, it seems there's an adult in your home that isn't always respectful to you and it's caused tension. Maybe your daughter is picking up on that.
The oldest child is quick to be sorry, the second one is being "defiant" with an I-don't-care attitude.
I'm just saying that maybe your kids are picking up on other things more than you realize and one thing I do know for sure is that it's not really productive to ask a child at 5 "why" questions.
Chances are she doesn't know exactly why she does or doesn't do a certain thing and even if she did, how would she put it into words that would actually explain it?
Little kids do really dumb stuff like overfilling the bathroom sink or using too much toilet paper. Getting them to think before they do something is a task in itself. At 5, getting a really credible "why" answer is pretty much not going to happen.
I'm a pretty strict mom, but you have to temper that with humor sometimes and you also have to take into account other things that might be going on.
All kids will test us. It's just a fact of life. But, we have to wonder if some of the stuff we expect of them is based on what isn't going right somewhere else.
I'm not saying you've done that, but I raised two kids alone and I really knew when I had a bad day at work that making my kids tow the line more wasn't going to change any of that.
If what you've been doing with your daughter isn't working, try a different approach.
I don't take back talk and lip or disrespect, but your daughter isn't ugly and uncaring and defiant. You need to find what works for her and thinking of her that way will only make it worse.

Just my opinion.
VERY best wishes.

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answers from Portland on

Empathetic communication with a child is actually one of the most effective AND gentle parenting tools I've ever discovered, and I always encourage young mothers to check it out – particularly women who are convinced that "tough" love is necessary to control their "defiant" children. And my favorite, best-ever parenting resource is the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Faber and Mazlish.

Ironically, rigorous rules and punitive outcomes can utterly fail to "correct" the misbehavior of certain personality types, i.e., "children with attitude." And may I gently observe that you report talking to your daughter in what sounds to me (not being there to actually hear it) like a demanding and sarcastic tone. If that's actually the case, then you are requiring her to respond to you in a manner that you are not modeling. A negative feedback loop becomes established, resulting in growing animosity between you and your daughter.

Parents can't always see the connection between their own "attitude" and their children's, especially when different siblings respond in different ways. But once we learn to consider situations more compassionately from the child's point of view, children suddenly – miraculously – become more cooperative, cheerful, relaxed. When they know we respect them and are on their team, kids have a positive expectation to live up to, not a negative one to live down.

Such quick turnarounds suggest that children are more emotionally flexible than many adults. They can often forgive, quickly and gratefully, and "become" the whole people they already are, without lingering resentments for being pounded into a mold that did not fit their legitimate needs. (This is perhaps because they are so utterly dependent on their parents, whether they are willing to admit it or not.)

At any rate, this kind of emotional intelligence isn't a top-down process, it's a continuous positive feedback loop. Parents often need to learn to respect their children's native emotions and needs, because we usually repeat the kind of parenting we ourselves received as children. And children (being superbly programmed by nature to learn through imitation) learn to respect their parents' emotions and needs. The potential for positive change can become apparent from the first few awkward experiments in empathy, no matter how imperfectly executed.

Do families using this approach stop having issues? Well, no. Life's more complicated than that. Conflicting needs will always exist. But the conflicts become an adventure in emotional growth for both parent and child. It's a win-win situation that brings us closer to the sweet dreams we had when we contemplated having a child.

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answers from Washington DC on

I have two teenage girls (just took the first to college) so I know definace. I have not read other responses, but I can tell you that the book: "Children, the Challenge: The Classic Work on Improving Parent-Child Relations--Intelligent, Humane & Eminently Practical" (and I took a parent education class that used this book as the "text" - taught by other parents) made all the difference for me. The premise of the book is to constantly encourage our children through positive discipline, building trust, and living by natural consequences. It's awesome and completely different than the way i was raised - and probably the way you were raised.

Sounds like you are like me - I was working against my kids (this was the way I was raised) instead of trying to understand them, encourage them and work WITH them. Like you say, they're good kids. Your greatest gift to the 5-year old is to help her understand herself and how what she does/says effects others. THe more you can say, "what you just said is hurtful" or "I feel so angry about this", (and vice versa, "I love the way you just asked your sister to stop doing that!" or "I love the way you apologized for that - it makes me feel so much better")- the better. I still need to remind my teens that it is important that they "make amends" for a particular action/statement. I do NOT tell them they HAVE to apologize - just that they must undrestand their actions upset/hurt/angered another and they have to bring it to closure. This concept applies to a 5 year old - just using different language - I know because I did it (and like you, one of my kids is MUCH MUCH better at it - but as the older one once said to me, "Mom, just because I don't say things the same way as you doesn't mean I don't feel them" - BIG lesson for me).

Also, my kids were not "punished" - they experienced (not "suffered") the consequences of their choices and actions. When I could help them think through their choice in advance ("you understand that if you do x, y is likely to happen - just think about it"). This creates a link between them and the outcome. MUCH more effective than punishing (my kids, for example, have never been grounded as this does NOT work - they just sneak around). Again, applicable from the time they are tiny. As teens, the worst consquence is losing the trust of their parents- this devastates them, trust me as I didn't believe it unitl I experienced it - I just figured they didn't care one way or the other, but they do. Once that happens, their only job is to "earn back the trust" and they take it very seriously.

In terms of asking her, "what were you thinking?"....Honestly, like a teen, she really doesn't know - her brain is not fully developed and it's an incredibly unfair question. Instead, tell her (kindly) - "you know, when you do/say that, it is really hurtful/creates a problem for me/is not helpful. What do you think you could do instead??" You can brainstorm alternatives. This has been a very effective tool for me/my kids. I feel like I am literally giving them "tools" to use in the future - it is a VERY positive/encouraging way to approach these issues and a huge relief to them as they don't feel like a failure, like they're stupid, etc. Remember, encourage, encourage, encourage - ESPECIALLY when they make a mistake. This is your ideal time to teach, not shame.

Trust me, I understand how hard it is. Just taking one to college, I'm reliving every moment - painful. Just keep at it. I had to learn (and am learning) lots and lots of new skills - hard but worthwhile.

As an FYI, I don't understand calling your mother/father m'am/sir as it creates a clear power struggle (in my opinion), but maybe that is a geographical thing (ie- I have a friend from the south who insists that his son use these terms; having grown-up in the northeast, it is alien to me).

Good luck!



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answers from Washington DC on

Your first little girl is generally compliant and your five-year old is more strong-willed. And she's five -- she's pushing boundaries, making decisions that you find not so smart. Just being tough-love may not work with her. She's going to have to understand the consequences of her decisions and figure out how to make good choices about her behavior. I have two pretty strong-willed kids. If they do something carelessly and make a mess, well then they have to clean it up. Usually, when they are on time out it is because they blatantly defied what we told them to do. And since they were little before they got off timeout, they had to explain why they were on timeout in their own words.

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answers from Cumberland on

Well, first of all, when someone is asked "why did you do that?" and it hasn't turned out they way they invisioned, the only response is "because I'm stupid." So, please don't ever ask that again. My generation was raised that way and it destroyed our self esteem. My children were taught that the behavior was foolish, bad, etc.-not the person. I didn't always like what they did or said-but I always loved them. You have, by your own words created a middle child. I know it is difficult-I have raised five children and now have a nine month old grandchild (reason for living)-but try to put Madison in a position of responsibility and talk things out-alot-like what behavior you expect-and see if that helps. My kids helped more when they were little, than when they were teenagers with perfectly intact self -esteem. They made their beds when they were two-put their laundry away, picked up all their toys. Wiped up the kitchen floor with plain water, of course-and looked out for each other-older children read to younger children. God knows what I was doing? A five yr old can put dishes in the dishwasher and even put the clean ones away if the kitchen is set up for it. some one-on-one time would be great-again, I know it is difficult, but good luck!

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answers from Columbus on

Is the dumb stuff impulsive behavior? Kids really may not know why they did something impulsive, or they are smart enough to know that they should not have done what they did, but could not stop the behavior because it was an impulse, gone by before they could apply what they know. It is like their thinking process does not kick in before it is all said and done, and then, what do they say in response to "why?"

Some impulsive behavior is very typical for 5 year olds, so it may be nothing to worry about. It could be that in comparison to your older daughter, she lacks a little bit of insight into how to schmooze Mom when she finds herself in a pickle, and like most of us, when we start thinking of our selves as being bad at something, we can get stuck in a pattern of behavior that we selffulfill as we assume we are, living up or down to the expectation. People have different levels of processing skill that is still within typcial range of funcitoning, but as children develop, and they have a greater capacity to understand the concept of right and wrong than they have ablity to stop an impulse because of what they know, it can result in some pretty stupid, "I don't know" stuff, because it would be difficult for any of us to say, I knew I should not have done that, but I just did and I don't know why I did not stop myself. That makes them feel stupid, in addition to feeling bad about what they did, and in some kids temperament, they get defenisve and cop an attitude rather than to say that they can stop an impulse based on higher understanding of right and wrong, which is a pretty heady concept for a five year old!

I would stop asking her why, especially if you think this idea applies to her, and just say that you know that she knows right from wrong, and that this behavior just slipped out too quickly for her to stop it, and that you understand that she is really trying to do the right thing, and you want to help her learn to slow down and think before she acts. It may cut the attitude if she thinks you understand that she is struggling with things she can't seem to get a handle on.

If this continues to be an issue, and her abilitiy to apply what she knows and to her actions does not improve, then at some point, you might explore an evaluation of her processing skills to see if one or more is out of wack and would respond to some intervention and behavioral therapy.


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answers from San Francisco on

What is your attitude like? Children tend to copy how their parents behave.

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answers from Washington DC on

My sister-in-law used a book called 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan on her most defiant child. I also use it with my 3yo when he's being argumentative. It's a method of training your kids NOT to talk back/say hurtful things, etc. It's also a method where the parents are trained NOT to be hurt by their children who talk back/say hurtful things. Basically it says that you should never continue to have a conversation with your kid like the ones you talked about above because it will only result in escalated emotion by both the child and the parent, and that situation will always end badly for all parties involved. His method will result in no yelling from you, and significantly reduced attitude from your kids. the book is not the answer to all parenting issues, but it WILL help with exactly the situation you're having. I'd check it out! It's probalby at the local library, or they can order it for you, if you want to read through it to see the basic gist. Remember to keep your cool when your daughter acts up like this (she is only doing it because she see how much it ruffles your feathers, and that lets her keep control over the situation) and good luck!

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