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5-Year-Old Girl Acts Out Violently

Question:

My sister is struggling with her 5-year old daughter, who has been lying, stealing and throwing violent temper tantrums. My sister frequently calls me to vent and ask for advice, but I don't know how to help her. I love my niece. In fact, I practically raised her until she was around the age of 2 because my sister was struggling with an addiction. Then I moved away and my Mom helped take care of my niece until my sister got clean two years ago. My niece has had a rough upbringing so far, and inconsistent parenting and a lack of discipline could be to blame. What advice do you have for my sister?

Answer:

Your niece is very fortunate to have you and your mother in her life. You are so right that she is a product of her mother's parenting style. Children who are brought up in the way you describe often show this kind of behavior. The good news is that her behavior can change, and it is great that you want to help your sister deal with this situation while your niece is still very young.  The bad news is that even at age 5, your niece has already established some negative behavior patterns. Her behavior will most likely get worse before it gets better if someone doesn’t intervene and change the pattern by teaching appropriate behaviors. The best way to accomplish this is through consistency. Here are some suggestions you can share with your sister:

It is important that she outlines the rules and expectations for her daughter in her home. Your niece is not too young to have rules. Your sister and any other adults who are involved in caring for your niece should agree on the rules and make a commitment to deal with her behavior in the same way. Your sister should clearly outline the expectations she has for her daughter. The girl needs to know what the rules are and what will happen when she follows them and when she doesn’t follow them.

If your niece breaks the rules, your sister should:

  1. Stop the problem behavior and clearly describe it.
  2. Give a negative consequence.
  3. Describe the positive behavior she wants her daughter to use.
  4. Help her daughter practice the behavior she wants her use in the future.

It is important that your sister stays calm and consistently uses these steps every time her daughter acts out. 
 
If her daughter becomes aggressive, your sister should put her in time-out. If the girl leaves time-out, your sister should continue to put her back in it until she is compliant. As a general rule, the length of a time-out should be one minute for each year of the child’s age. Also, your sister should not give her daughter any attention until she has calmed down. Then she should make sure her daughter understands that it isn't okay to hit or hurt others and give a negative consequence. The consequence might be doing something nice for the person the girl hit, after she has calmed down.

Negative consequences alone will not change your niece’s behaviors. Your sister also must teach, at a time when everyone is calm, positive behaviors that her daughter can use instead of the acting-out behaviors. And when her daughter follows the rules and uses positive behaviors, your sister must give her positive praise and positive consequences. This will make more likely that her daughter will use positive behaviors in the future. As a rule, your sister should try to give positive consequences four times for every one time she gives a negative consequence.

Many families like to use a chart to document their children’s positive behavior. Your sister and her daughter can work together to create a chart for their home. They can write down the behaviors and consequences the chart will keep track of, and the daughter can draw pictures and pick out stickers for the chart. Your sister can also give her daughter a larger reward when the girl uses good behavior for a certain amount of time. Your sister should set up expectations for this reward that her daughter can achieve.   

Rewards do not have to be expensive. In fact, some families use a "joy jar," which contains slips of paper with rewards written on them. These can include time with mom or dad, a trip to the library, getting to choose what to have for dinner, and other things a child likes. Your sister can help her daughter write down the rewards on pieces of paper and put them in the jar. Then, every time the girl uses a positive behavior, she gets to draw a slip from the jar.
 
Finally, your sister may want to obtain a mental health/behavioral health evaluation for her daughter and/or consult with the girl’s pediatrician about her behavior. 

If your sister would like to talk more about this issue, she can call the Boys Town National Hotline® at 1-800-448-3000. Trained crisis counselors are available 24/7. She also can visit www.boystown.org/parenting for great parenting advice and tips.

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