Five-Year-Old Lying and Constantly in Trouble

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Hi, I have a daughter who just turned 5 and a 20-month-old son. My daughter is constantly giving us trouble, at home and at day care. I'll start with...she actually bit someone a few weeks ago at school. I couldn't believe it at her age. Then when I asked her who she bit, she said she didn't bite anyone. So, she is already lying to us, too.

She never listens to us about anything. Example: this morning I'm getting my son into the car seat while she is playing in a puddle. I say 'stop it, and get in the car' and she continues over and over to walk through and splash. I start to get mad and she knows it, but still continues. Once I finally get her in the car, I talk to her about what happened and she covers her ears, and she is mad all the way to school. This is an example of all the little things that she does that drive me crazy. It is like this all day long. She is constantly doing things just to bother us.

Now, I admit she may need more attention, especially because of her brother, but I'll tell you neither gets that much attention, because I am so tired all the time, with work, then dinner, and cleaning and laundry. She is also, very intelligent, stubborn, and must have her way all the time. I have read your book for Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and love it, but it is so hard to practice it every day. I forget and just get angry again.

Please help. Thank you.


I hear your frustrations, how busy you are, and how much you want to do the "right" thing. It is obvious that you want to be a good parent, or you wouldn't be reading books and asking for help.

Right now, however, it sounds as though you are caught in a vicious cycle. Can you see that your daughter may also be caught in this vicious cycle? You are finding it difficult to change your behavior – and so is she.

I hope I can give you some simple steps that might improve the situation. First, let's talk about lying. Most children lie because they don't feel safe to tell the truth. Would you tell the truth if you knew the results would be blame, shame, and pain? Most adults don't realize how much they "set children up" by asking them if they did something, when the parent already knows what they did.

Next time you might try the following: In a very kind voice say, "Honey, I heard that you bit someone at school today. Come sit on my lap and tell me what happened." If she resists and says she didn't bite anyone, she doesn't trust you yet. Say something like, "My guess is that the reason you don't want to tell me about it is that you are afraid you will get into trouble. I love you, and I'm on your side. I have faith in you and me that we can figure out a solution to whatever happened."

If she gets the feeling that you really are on her side, chances are that she will tell you about it. This is the time to listen and validate her feelings. Once she feels really heard, you could then brainstorm with her what she could do to solve the problem. Be sure to ask Curiosity Questions instead of "telling" her what to do. How she could make amends (let her tell you). How she could handle the situation differently next time (let her tell you). By doing this you will solve several problems. You will help her feel that sense of belonging and significance, you will teach her that mistakes are opportunities to learn. You will teach her that she can make up for her mistakes and focus on solutions that are respectful to everyone.

Now let's tackle not listening. Most kids don't listen to parents because parents talk too much – and most parents don't give children a good model of what listening is about. Most parents are too busy "telling" instead of listening. Some are "telling" when they would be more effective by "acting". Let me give you examples based on your concerns. Instead of "telling" her to get out of the puddle, you may need to take the time to take her by the hand and lead her to the car – kindly and firmly. (Preferably without saying a word. Words just invite resistance.) I know this is inconvenient when you have the baby to take care of. Actually, it is just as inconvenient to keep yelling at her and then end up angry and frustrated.

Even better, you might take some preventative actions that will actually invite cooperation and help her feel belonging and significance at the same time. You might say, "Honey, I really need your help. Would you take my purse and find the keys for me while I'm getting your brother in his car seat?" Again, this could help her feel belonging and significance. You are giving her opportunities to use her power in useful ways.

"I can see why it would be fun to jump in puddles. Someday I'm going to join you."

Most kids cover their ears when the lectures start. They may not have the courage to do it physically, but they find other ways to "tune out". The next time you feel a lecture coming, switch to curiosity questions. First you might validate her feelings, "I can see why it would be fun to jump in puddles. Someday I'm going to join you. Right now what happens to your clothes and shoes when you jump in puddles?" Let her tell you. "Can you tell me why that could be a problem?" Let her tell you. "Can you think of a time when it would be okay to jump in puddles – and what you would need to wear?" Can you see how engaging this could be to her? Education comes from the root educaré, which means "to draw forth". Most adults are trying to "stuff in" and are constantly frustrated because it doesn't work. When they try to stuff in, the lectures go "in one ear and out the other."

Some parents think these methods take too much time, but if you think about it, it is more a matter of new skills and habits than time. It takes just as much time to lecture, scold, punish, be angry, etc. Changing habits and learning new skills isn't easy – until it becomes easy. In the meantime, be kind to yourself. You aren't the only mother who is going through these times of overwhelm. Don't be hard on yourself. Keep remembering that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn.

Since much of your daughter's misbehavior is related to discouragement, I recommend that you mark the next 10 days on your calendar to notice the things you like about her. Every night for those 10 days spend 5 minutes noticing and writing down all the things (big and small) that you like about her and her positive attributes (which sometimes you don't "like" because you feel like they "obstruct" you.) If you have to start with "she is sleeping right now." Do that. But also include things like her creative responses to being discouraged and yelled at, her intelligence, her passion, her intensity, her persistence. Gosh some of these qualities are annoying in children...but they really support young people as they grow into adulthood. During each of those 10 days also include 10 minutes of one on one time with her (reading or playing) where you don't utter a critical word... no matter what. After 10 days, look back and see if you can see her in a slightly different light. And, I'll be surprised if her behavior doesn't change. Children thrive when they feel a sense of belonging and significance.

Your daughter sounds like a very intelligent little girl. It will be worth it to take the time to redirect all this intelligence into useful endeavors. To that end I want to encourage you to start having regular Family Meetings with her so she can practice the skills of giving compliments and brainstorming for solutions to problems. I wish you the best.

Jane Nelsen


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