The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How do parents deal with a child’s defiant behavior?

(The Washington Post/Prisma filter/iStock)

Q: Our daughter, who is almost 6, has really been pushing buttons lately, some of them safety-related (for example, when she doesn't like how I'm holding her hand, she'll stomp off across parking lots). I had to go and grab her last night while she tried to run into the lot. She screamed that I was hurting her, which I don't want — or intend — to do. Yes, she's tired, and we're out of routine, but I also can't let her be hit by a car. She's also using lots of mean language to me and others ("I hate you, you stupid pants"). I'm trying not to react, but I also desperately want her to know it's not acceptable, especially to grandparents. Any suggestions? We're trying hard to give her predictable and special time with us. And yes, the attitude predates summer vacation.

A: Thanks for your question. You are not the only one struggling with having a child who uses mean language and displays behaviors like these, but there is a lot I don’t know: Are there any known or unknown disorders, transitions in the house, or other reasons for the recent uptick in uncooperative behavior? I don’t know, so it would be useful to make a list of what is going on in this child’s life to be sure there isn’t something you’re missing.

This young child is already dreading first grade. What’s going on?

In the meantime, when I see behaviors like this in a 5-year-old, I see a discouraged child. Wrenching away from a parent in a parking lot is typical 3-year-old behavior, but when a kid who is almost 6 is doing it? An average 6-year-old is still emotional, sure, but typically able to hold on to their patience a bit more. At that age, children begin to access some rational thinking, can wait for what they want and can begin to understand the consequences of their actions (such as: “Running in a parking lot could get me killed”). But they can also be prone to bursts of immaturity, irrational thought and general incorrigibility. All of this depends on your child. I don’t know your daughter, but I know this: She needs supportive boundaries, stat.

Though your desire to nip this behavior in the bud may be strong, punishing your child will not yield the results you want. Your mantra should be, “If my child could do better, she would.” Though simple, it is a powerful parenting move to acknowledge that your kid is doing the best she can and that punitive consequences won’t teach her anything. I know sassy language can be provocative, but I am guessing it is working well when it comes to getting your attention. Children are so programmed to get your eyes that they will do anything that works. And yes, that means running away and being rude. Even though she is a bit older than the average child who behaves this way, deciding she is manipulative won’t endear her to you, so you might as well assume she needs support rather than punishment.

What are you supposed to do? Well, safety is a nonnegotiable, so running in parking lots is not an option, period. You need to figure out whether this stomping off in the parking lot was a one-off or whether it’s a chronic issue. If it happened once, move on. If you feel as if this is becoming a bad habit, then you need to call a meeting with her and practice positive, direct and clear communication: “I’ve noticed that we are having some parking lot problems. My goal, as a mother, is to make sure I get the groceries and you home in one piece. Let’s make a plan that guarantees both of those goals. I know shopping is the dullest thing in the world, so let’s make it more fun. You get to pick one special dessert for the family, anything you want. Even artichokes.” (Add humor!)

You will want to see how your daughter responds. Does she fold her arms and side-eye you? Does she meet your eyes and smile? Her response matters, because it tells you how to proceed. If she isn’t interested in a positive plan, it means the discouragement runs deep, and you are going to proceed with other encouragement. If she cannot stop running away from you, running errands with your daughter may need to be placed on pause for a bit, or as much as possible.

Next, kudos to you for continuing the special time as a form of connection, and under no circumstances should you give that up. But I invite you to see other ways you can connect with your daughter. For instance, kids that age are more than capable of handling some pretty big responsibilities; is there anything your daughter can take on? It should be fun and needed, and if you want to sweeten the pot with a little celebration or reward for a job well done, go for it. The idea is that your daughter is noticed for something other than her mean language. Being able to praise her for something tangible is a powerful way to connect, and no one needs to be perfect here.

Might you create a consequence for the unkind language? Sure, that could be an appropriate strategy, but only after you’ve worked on connecting with her in a new way. She has some anger and discouragement in her; let’s see if we can get that out in a productive way.

Good luck.

More from Lifestyle:

Our 6-year-old’s meltdowns are taking over our family

Our 6-year-old has a fun, comfortable life. Why isn’t she grateful?

Getting an uncooperative 5-year-old from Point A to Point B