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Our 5-Year-Old Terror


This morning I woke up to my little girl giving me kisses and wishing me a good morning. We lay in bed together for a few minutes reading books and I thought, “Yay! Today is the day that will go smoothly.” Then I got out of bed and discovered she had trashed her room. Books were strewn everywhere. The walls were covered with streaks of permanent marker. Food wrappers and half-full cups of juice were all over the place. These behaviors are new for our daughter, and as they get worse, I get more worried. At one point, she even got in the fish tank, spilling water and killing the fish. How do I end these destructive behaviors? 



It sounds as if this dramatic change in your daughter’s behavior happened overnight, which is very unusual. Sometimes a drastic change in routine, a big move, or the loss of a loved one can trigger intense emotions and cause some significant behavioral changes in a person. So, the first thing to do is determine if there were any major changes in your daughter’s (or your family’s) life prior to her starting to act out. Even something that might seem positive, like starting kindergarten, could have triggered her bad behavior.

Your daughter is also at an age where kids exert their independence a lot more. By age 5, kids realize they are independent little beings. They want to try to tie their own shoes, even if they cannot. They want to make their own bed, even if it ends up wrinkly. They want a little more separation from their parents so they can play with friends or hand money to the store clerk by themselves. Why? The answer is simply because they can. 

With your daughter, you’ve reached a point where some of her behaviors, like getting in the fish tank, are big safety issues. When children are at their worst,​ parents have to be at our best. Right now, the best thing to do is arrange a full mental health evaluation for your daughter. Talk to your pediatrician and get some referrals. A clinical psychologist, a child psychiatrist or even a medical doctor can do the evaluation. Knowing what you are dealing with will guide you to the best strategies for addressing your child’s behavior. The results of the evaluation will help you determine your next steps, whether they include working on your daughter’s behavior at home or having her see a counselor or a therapist.

As you move forward, find some sources of support for yourself. This is a difficult situation and both you and your daughter can benefit from having someone in your corner.