5-Year-Old Behavior Problems and Discipline

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There are as many causes of behavior problems in 5-year-old children as there are individual differences in children's personalities and preferences. But when it comes to disciplining and correcting behavior in 5-year-old children, parents have a big advantage because children this age are much more verbal and able to reason and discuss problems with their parents.

For instance, a 5-year-old child will be better able to express his feelings using words when he is frustrated by something, whereas a toddler may resort to a tantrum because he doesn't yet have the verbal skills to articulate his feelings. Similarly, parents can encourage 5-year-olds to talk about what may be causing unacceptable behavior and discuss with their child ways that may help him make better decisions.

Common Causes of Behavior Problems in 5-Year-Old Children

Some 5-year-olds may struggle with the transition to kindergarten. They may experience separation anxiety or worry about interacting with new and unfamiliar peers and teachers. They may have trouble adapting to a classroom environment where they will be expected to pay attention, follow directions, and share and cooperate with others.

Behavioral problems in children this age may also stem from frustration, since many 5-year-old children may want to do things that they are not yet developmentally able to do. Some children this age may want to achieve perfection—say, draw a picture of a house, or Mom or Dad perfectly—and become unhappy and frustrated with themselves if they do not get the result they wanted.

Five-year-olds may also test limits as they try out their developing sense of independence. You may see behavior problems, such as talking back or defiance. At the same time, 5-year-old children have not been that far out of the preschool years, and it’s common to see children this age still resorting to tantrums and whining to express themselves.

How to Discipline 5-Year-Old Children

The best way to handle the discipline of 5-year-olds is by providing them with consistent reminders about what is and is not acceptable behavior and what is expected of them. It is also important to understand that children this age are processing a lot of information and new expectations, and what may look like defiance may actually be a child simply being focused on an activity, and lacking the self-regulation to pull herself away and transition to something else. If a 5-year-old is dawdling or seems to ignore a request to, say, pick up her toys, she may simply be too engrossed in an activity to hear you.

Other discipline tips to keep in mind:

  1. Keep it short and sweet. You don't need to get into a lengthy discussion about why a behavior is unacceptable. With young children, it's best to keep things simple and specific.
  2. Don't expect too much too soon. Your 5-year-old is still a young child and may still fall back on behaviors, such as tantrums and meltdowns. Keep in mind that she is still working on skills such as self-control and self-discipline, so don’t expect her to act like a big kid overnight.
  3. Be clear about what is not acceptable. Reinforce the message that there are some behaviors that are absolute "no-no's," such as hitting or other physical aggression and speaking to you in a disrespectful tone.
  4. Look for the cause. If your 5-year-old is being defiant, disrespectful, or is acting out in anger, there may be a reason behind the behavior, such as a change in your child’s routines or in the household.
  5. Establish good communication now. Good behavior starts with good communication between parent and child. If you haven’t done so already, find a routine with your child to handle problems as they come up. For instance, you could have a special place in the house where you and your child can have a talk about behavior problems and solutions. You can also make it a house rule that conflicts and problems are discussed after a cool-off period when solutions can be better addressed in a calm manner.
  1. Set your child up for good behavior. If you know your child is prone to meltdowns or crankiness when she hasn’t had enough rest, make sure she has a good bedtime routine and gets enough sleep. If she hates rushing from one activity to another, avoid behavior problems by building in a little extra time into your schedule.
  2. Tailor discipline to the age of your child. For some parents, time-outs may work best with a 5-year-old child. For others, taking away privileges or toys may be more effective. As children get older, they will value things like time with friends or a specific TV program or computer game more than they did as a toddler, so these strategies may be more effective now and as he gets older.