Ask the Doctor - Answers to your Parenting Questions

Angry five year old

Dr. Laura,
I've just found your website and have found it extremely helpful for a dilemma I am having.  I have a 5 year old daughter who is extremely extremely strong willed.  We have gone through some traumas these past few years (job losses, deaths in family, international relocation, loss of home due to fire) that caused us some stress, and even though I thought I was handling everything well, I guess the stress got to me.  I myself am doing work to overcome the abandonment of my own father, and being raised by an emotionally absent, angry, depressive mother.  Motherhood for me is quite challenging and overwhelming sometimes, (especially being a full time mom and earning more than my husband).  I often feel overwhelmed by all of my responsibilities. 

I work on myself every day so I can be the best mother.  But, I  did notice from even as young as a few months old that my daughter was going to be a strong willed child (I think I was one too!) :)

Lately, my daughter has been a bit angry, and I am afraid she is maybe mirroring the reactions I have had over this past year or two.  When I say she is strong willed, I mean that she really resists any request or any thing that needs to be done.  After a 2 hour commute and a full work day, it has not always been easy for me to stay calm.  We don't hit, except for a once in a blue moon tap on the butt if she is really out of control.   She does have a tendency to still have some tantrums, especially after her after-school program (which I gather she is tired and hungry). 

Now, every time I start to say any type of request...she say's STOP IT MOMMY..........constantly........and she has started yelling at me.  In public, I am not sure how to handle this, and I am doing everything in my power to stay calm.....which is quite difficult sometimes.  After she has been quite fresh, and I am trying to deal with her, she says "You don't want me to be your daughter anymore MOMMY".   Now, when we are not having these issues, we are affectionate, spend lots of time together, read, play, and snuggle before bed at night.  I always tell her how much I love her and how lucky I am to be her mommy.  I try to be as positive as I can.  I am doing my best (as is my husband...who is much more calm than I am) keep things consistent with her.

I am at my wits end and feel like I am messing up as a mother.  I know my reactions are not always perfect and that maybe I say the wrong things sometimes.   Her mental, physical health and happiness is my goal in life, since I myself was not lucky enough to have that.  I am doing a lot of work to release repressed anger I may have I can be a bit nervous a result of my own upbringing.  I make no excuses for myself, just a little background so you can understand.  I take full responsibility for anything I may do to cause her these reactions, but I just feel so lost.  I am not sure if I should take her to therapy, or if there is a better way to handle her yelling at me and constantly defying me.  

Any input from you would be so greatly appreciated as I have days at work, that I have to run into the bathroom and cry, because I feel like I am failing at the most important job in the world.

Thank you in advance.

Dear Barbara,
First, I want to extend my sympathy for the travails you’ve suffered. Being a parent is hard under the best of circumstances.  When you lose your home due to fire, lose a job, relocate internationally, and especially lose loved ones, parenting well becomes a Herculean task. When you haven’t had the best parenting from your own mom and dad, things get even more complicated.
Your description of your daughter’s angry behavior isn’t surprising, given the circumstances and your own self-described stress. When kids act like your daughter is acting, it’s a cry for help. I suspect that your daughter has a lot of pent-up feelings about all these traumatic experiences, and also about her relationship with you, given all the stress you’ve been under.  She needs your help to process those emotions.  The simple way to say it is that she needs a good cry to get them off her chest.
I think your daughter is also asking for more connection to you.  Some kids can handle all day at school and daycare with parents working, but it sounds like your daughter is feeling disconnected from you by the end of the day.  I say that because she is fighting against your direction and requests. When kids who feel connected to their parents, they WANT to please them, as long as they aren’t on the defensive to get their own needs met. This isn’t a reflection on your overall relationship with your daughter, just an indication that after a long day, your connection has eroded and needs to be renewed before your daughter will accept your direction.
Finally, when you try to set limits on your daughter’s “freshness” she concludes that you must not love being her mother. From her perspective, you’re reacting to the wrong thing – her “freshness” – rather than hearing her cry for help.
What can you do with this challenging situation when you’re already feeling overwhelmed?  
1. You deserve some serious self-care. You’ve been through a lot lately.  You’re also healing childhood pain.  I would recommend that you find a counselor who can work with you for a bit to help you through these issues.  In addition, find sustainable ways to take care of yourself. You want to give your daughter the best of yourself, not what’s left of yourself.
2. Before you pick your daughter up in the evening, get centered yourself. Then, immediately connect with her.  Get down on her level. Give her a big hug.  Use endearments. Say the same thing every day, to signal that it's time to reconnect. Snuggle for a minute before setting off for home so she feels connected to you.
3. Don’t run errands on the way home.  Just get her from her after-school program to your home as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Instead of giving her any kind of requests, use that time to “baby” her, listen to her, and connect with her. If she’s like most five year olds, she dawdles on the way home.  To prevent her hunger from pushing her over the edge, feed her a small snack as you walk (for example, crackers with peanut butter that you packed that morning). (I’m assuming you’re walking, but this also works in the car.)
4. If your daughter gives you a hard time on the way home, meet her “fresh” remarks with empathy. “You don’t want to _____.  You wish _____.  You’re mad that ______.  Do I have that right?”  This is not the time to have a meltdown on the street; your empathic responses will disarm her crankiness and help her feel understood.
5. Once you get home, brace yourself.  Your little girl has an avalanche of feelings that she really needs to release.  That’s why she’s acting so ornery.  If you can, get some dinner into both of you before she loses it, by continuing to meet her unhappiness with empathy (and by having something ready that you can quickly reheat.)
6. Help her cry. Then, create enough safety that your daughter can show you all those feelings and get them off her chest.  How?  Summon up all your compassion. Gently set a reasonable limit.  For instance, you might say, “It’s time to take your bath now. Remember, five minutes ago, you chose to take your bath in five minutes.  It has been five minutes and now it’s time.”  When your daughter yells “STOP IT MOMMY!” you can meet her anger with empathy and kindness but stick firm to your limit. “You wish it wasn’t bath time so you could keep playing.  But it’s late and we need to get you washed up and ready for bed.”
At this point, your daughter will most likely have a meltdown.  If she doesn’t, repeat your firm limit, coupled with warmth, and that will almost certainly trigger her tears. (You know how when you really need to cry, and someone is kind to you, you melt?)
When your daughter launches into crying or raging, stay close. Say “It’s ok to cry.  It’s ok to be mad.  I’m be right here. I see how much you’re hurting.”  
If she yells at you to go away, that’s a sign that she doesn’t want to feel these feelings. Your presence is what makes her feel safe enough to let these feelings out, so if she can get you to leave her alone, she can bottle them up again.  You can simply say, “I love you, Sweetie, and I don’t want you to be alone with these feelings while you feel so bad.”
If she tries to hurt you, move a little away and don’t her hurt you, but keep speaking to her in a calming voice, acknowledging that she has lots of upsetting feelings built up and it’s good to let them all out, and that you will be there for her.
During this episode of your daughter “unburdening” herself, let her be as “fresh” as she wants. She may well scream at you and say terrible things.  Don’t take them personally, and don’t feel you are letting her get away with something.  She is expressing feelings that have been tormenting her, in the best way she knows how.  Rather than learning that she can treat you badly, she is learning that you are a safe haven for her to grapple with what most bothers her.  This experience will make her feel closer to you, and will result in her being more cooperative, affectionate, and respectful, all of which result from a closer relationship.

Your daughter’s “fit” may go on for a very long time. That’s good. Realize that you are doing her a huge service and allowing her to release feelings that have been pent up for years. Simply make yourself available so that she can cry. 

However, the point is NOT for your daughter to dump her anger on you. If she gets stuck in anger instead of tears, it means she needs more safety to feel comfortable crying. So ratchet up your empathy.
7. Don't make her talk.
She doesn’t need to explain what she’s upset about.  I doubt she really knows.  
8. Keep breathing. This will probably be tough for you.  If you find that you have feelings of your own coming up (anger, grief), just try to breathe through them and later find a safe way to cry and discharge them yourself.  You almost certainly have some pent-up feelings yourself and will need to give yourself the time and space to honor them.

9. When she seems to be calming down, test if she’s really done by looking her lovingly in the eye. If she still has some “yucky” emotions to discharge, your caring connection will once again trigger a flood of tears.  If not, she will melt into your arms.
10. Move on. Hug her and say "Those were some big feelings. You can always show me how you feel. Let's go take your bath now." You’ll find that after crying like this, your daughter will be affectionate and ready for her bath. She won’t want to discuss what’s just happened, which is fine. Prying will make her feel less safe, which is the opposite of what you want.
11. Welcome tears on an ongoing basis. After this initial “release session” I suspect your daughter will be much easier to deal with.  However, she will probably also provoke you to set a limit occasionally so that she has an excuse to cry and rage.  That’s healthy.
12. Longterm, find ways to strengthen your connection with your daughter. Can you change jobs to shorten your commute?  Can you find ways to stay connected to her during the day, for instance, by putting surprises and notes into her lunch, or calling her when she arrives at her afterschool program?
13.  Find ways to appreciate your daughter’s strong-willed ways
, so that she knows that she is allowed to be herself and still have you love her. Have you read my article on Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child?
I know you have been dealing with a frustrating situation. You are doing so many things right: Connecting with your daughter, telling her you’re lucky to be her mom, for instance. I have seen many kids like your daughter transform once their “freshness” is met with empathy and kind but firm limits that give them an opportunity to cry.  I hope this is true for your daughter as well.  I wish you every blessing.
Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 08-Jul-2010 09:39 PM
Wow is all I can say. My situation is a little similar and I had just started searching on the internet for some help. Dr. Laura, thank you for this answer/reply. It was clear, to the point and I loved that is was broken down. Easier to take it all in, process and picture peace coming from this. I hope the mom who wrote for help is doing better. Thanks again! Diane
Janet commented on 15-Jul-2010 05:26 PM
Fabulous break down - this is exactly like my 5 and 1/2 year old niece. I was really worried that she was nuts or something. I am sending this article to her Mom. This is great advice.
Janet Shang commented on 29-Jul-2010 11:57 AM
This is a very helpful website. I have also a 5 year old daughter that is so full of nonsense at times. I think I have learnt a few tips already from your article. Thanks.
Anonymous commented on 03-Sep-2010 09:58 AM
Our situation is very similar, but the way we handled it is nothing to be proud off. Lashing out at my 5 years old daughter. Some times hitting did not help at all. She is such a brilliant, warm hearted, caring and loving little girl. I have been searching for help for a while now. Thanks a lot.
Angela commented on 03-Nov-2010 01:10 AM
If you're anything like me then you have scoured the internet searching for the "magic secret" of child rearing, because your vision of proper parenting is so skewed that you feel like you don't know what's too harsh or too soft. You fear giving your child too much freedom without out strict rules will pave the way for them to be unruly, not respective, and walk over people. Yet the very thought of being too strict sickens you to your core, because the possibility that you acted in a way that was like your mother is frightening, and what's even more frightening is that instead of you being the frightened child it's your own, and instead of the abuse coming from your mother; it is YOU who has done this, and and you sob uncontrollably as you watch your child sleep, because of the intense pain you feel in that moment. Have you become your mother? Is history repeating itself? The questions are haunting, and the answers seem even more terrifying. I can't tell you how many times I have wept after putting my daughter to bed. I then have to ask myself am I so worried of messing up as a mom that I search for some sort of validation in my reactions because it's the only way to relieve some of the severe pain and sorrow I go through. At what point does parenting become emotional abuse? I can tell myself over and over that I wasn't a bad mom because I made my daughter use the bathroom without help. I can tell myself that I'm not a bad mom because I might make my daughter turn off her movie when it's time for bed. When she asks if she can have 5 more minutes, these are the 2 questions that come to mind: If I let her, will it only increase her ability to walk all over me or if I say no, does that make me too strict? I believe there must be parents who believe it's not too strict, but when I see my child go into meltdown mode it's as though all the repressed emotions from my childhood surface and I find myself doubting my own value as a mother. From the day my daughter was born she cried. It's common for babies to cry a lot (this I know), but ALL the time? As a new mom reading anything I could my hands on; it had to be colic. They say it usually resolves itself within a few months, but those months passed, and my crying daughter kept on crying. I started to convince myself that I must be a horrible mom...if I even tried to soothe her the crying escalated. Where was the JOY OF MOTHERHOOD? Was I the exception? Is there something wrong with my daughter? Trying to research the root of the issue, becomes painfaul. AUTISM floods the search results. The idea of going to a family get together that you have always enjoyed is just "too much." Where most of children and babies there seem happy with life, and at ease with their surroundings your child is whaling, and it's as though everyone wonders what's wrong, and wonder what kind of mother has a child like this (or you at least convince yourself of this). AUTISM seems like a probability, the future is scary, and you don't know what to do or of you even an do it. This is part of what I felt my daughters first year, and sometimes I wondered if it was all just a bad dream. When she turned 11 months I had to go back to work, and daycare became her way of daily life. I was so nervous of how it would go, or what would happen. Would her crying fits eventually get her kicked out? Would she be too exhausting for any daycare provider to handle? Would they eventually approach me one day with the concern that she might be autistic or something worse? My family has a history of mental illness, is this her fate? To my surprise, this is NOT what happened. With disregard to her first few days she was happy. She laughed, smiled, and seemed blissful. I was stunned. She never had tantrums or crying fits. They always complicated her behavior, and never had problems, and whenever I watched her from a distance it was as though I saw a different child. I had spent her entire first year looking for something that could be potentially wrong with her....I should have been spending that first year trying to figure out what wasn't "right" with me. What I would give to have a "do-over" her first year! I love my own mother very much...she overcame life in ways that are mind-boggling, but she was still emotionally abusive, and the memories are very painful. She comes from a long line of emotional/physical abuse, and I truly believe breaking that cycle was part of her mission here. My daughter is 3 year old, and while things aren't perfect; we've come a LONG way. I'm absolutely convinced that I have been the root cause of her emotional turmoil however unintential it might have been. It's not because I'm a bad mom, it's because I've been a broken mom. Motherhood triggered the emotional flood that I tried to close off without ever dealing with it. The emotions I had buried inside and convinced myself that no longer applied; surfaced. The childhood depression that consumed my life was back as though it never left. It was as though all the pain and sorrow I experienced became all too real...not a forgotton memory. My daughter has watched me cry, watched me fall, but she's also watch me stand up. However by confronting those hidden fears a space for healing is created. It pains me to admit my daughter has seen me cry even just on occasion. While there's no disputing my child has a very strong-willed spirit and does have some ODC tendensies but that's who she is. I never knew being a mom could be so difficult or draining, but I do know that I'm better than that. I do have to give myself a reality check sometimes though...Having my child eat 2 bites of a dinner she doesn't want probably isn't abuse...having rules doesn't make you a bad mom...bad moms shake their babies. I have found that allowing myself to feel the childhood emotion when it surfaces, and writing about it is very powerful. It released the feelings I didn't know how to let go of, and because of that my child isn't feeling them with me, and is blossoming beyond belief. I'm LUCKY to have her. You are a good mom, because you care. Bumps are tricky to get over as a parent...especially when what you're supposed to do in certain situations is skewed, but don't ever give up on yourself, and when you are convinced that the world has got you beat, and things couldn't be any worse, and your daughter is in the room take a deep breathe, and tell yourself that YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS!!! Don't stop telling yourself that, allow the emotion, and then destroy it before you do anything you might regret. When I think of my own mother my opinion of her is beyond high. Despite any setbacks we had in those early years she never quit or gave up in her effort to break the cycle of abuse. She became a master over her emotions...she didn't pretend they didn't exist, she confronted them and destroyed them. I would never wish my own childhood on my daughter, but I have to believe that as long as I am contually striving to do RIGHT, and be a good mom; I cannot fail. The joy of motherhood is very real...When I started to let go of fear, and deal with my own pent up emotions it was as though my child was healing (not just me). I can't erase those early experiences, but I can move-forward, and with joy. So hang in there, and never give up. You're doing a good matter what anybody says. Think of it as a way to put all of life's lessons into's your chance to fight, your chance to win...your chance to rise above! Trust me, I know it won't be easy, and you don't want your child to suffer through it... you might even think to yourself that your child would be better off somewhere else...a place where mommy wasn't struggling so much, but she loves you, and you are so much better than anything the world tries to tell you otherwise. Do it for yourself! Don't make her the reason you get up everyday...this one's for you. Get up, because you can. Get up because you're excited to tackle your day. Get up because you love life and love being a mom. With all the doom and gloom the world offers there is a light. Maybe you weren't exposed to this light in your early years, but that doesn't mean it's not for you or possible. Ironically by allowing yourself to embrace all that is right in the world, the light will easily spread to your daughter. You don't have to be superwoman or super nanny...You just have to be the best you, because ultimately that's what your daughter needs too! Love yourself, and it will be reciprocated. When all is said and done you matter, and you matter as a mother...she's your daughter for a reason, and no one can ever take your place. I'm sorry if I said too much over stepped a boundry. But after reading your post I couldn't help but respond. It was all too familiar...and when I was convinced there was no way to remedy the situation I became determined to change coarse. I'm not a perfect mom, and there are days when I wish I excercised more patience, but I know I'm not a bad mom, and I refuse to abuse my child. Someone once close to me would say "the least said; the least mended." There's very little we can control in this world, but we can control our reactions to life, and we can control our quality of life.
Anonymous commented on 23-Jan-2011 05:52 AM
my granddaughter seems angry we all love her very go out of way to try to make her happy sometimes she sit and winge ask her what is wrong she just want tell you for awhile she has a 3 year old brother which he acn be a bit rough on her anyway thats my short story
sim commented on 17-Feb-2011 05:28 PM
My 5 year old throw away his books & hit anyone around him when he is angry. He would get into alot of fights in school. He tells me that no one likes him. Now he is in primary school he said none of the other kids liked him and he just started about 5 months now and continues to say all the kids hate him.He says none of the kids will play with him. his dad & I was seperated when he was 5 months old and he visits his dad every sunday & I noticed that when he comes back from his dads he seems more angry than usual. He refuses to listen to my parents or my brothers and he only wants me to stay close to him when i go to work during the week and come home from work late he tells me I don't like him. I explain to him the reason i have to work late is because I love him and I have to earn a salary to meet his needs but I don't know how to help him at this point. I don't know why he thinks everyone hates him or even where he learned to throw away his books & hit anyone around him when he is angry. How can I help him?
Michelle Benoit commented on 29-Mar-2011 12:11 PM
As a mother of 2 young boys, ages 2 and 6, I have tried many approaches to parenting that just didn't work and left me and my children feeling sad and disconnected. None of them felt intuitively "right" either, until I was so desperate one day that I started
to search the internet and was so blessed to find Dr. Markham. Her wisdom is simply that - pure wisdom and I can tell you it has made a wondrous difference in the relationship I have with my children and our family as a whole. I always see positive results
and feel good and connected to my children when I follow Dr. Markham's loving wisdom. It is my wish that every mother and father who is suffering, not knowing how to parent and harming their children and themselves, find this website and apply the simple and
beautiful principles.
DRM- (mother to an almost-six-year old) commented on 03-May-2011 02:03 PM
Thank you. This was exactly what I was looking for, and I too will heed this advice. It has given me hope, and I am looking forward to picking up my daughter from school today, even if she has one of her emotional expulsions. I am very happy to have come
across this website. Thank you, Dr. Laura.
Erin commented on 26-Jul-2011 01:29 AM
My daughter acts very angry when dealing with the emotions of "social" happenings at school. She is extemely mean verbally to her sister and myself. I know she has something that happened during the day, but I have not known how to deal with it. I recently
had a day where I tried to be nice and show empathy, to sit her down and give her time to talk, etc. But to no avail. No tears, no talking, nothing. Finally after being extremely mean to her sister and myself still I asked her to go to her room since she couldn't
be with us. Well she was quite mad and had a meltdown, but came back down and was quite a changed gal. When we were sitting in bed talking that night, it finally came out that some kids were laughing at her at school because of something she said. In the morning,
she told my husband that one of her friends shunned her as well. So there it was finally it came out, and how horrible I felt that I reacted by yelling at her to go to her room to be by herself to deal with those feelings. So, thank you for this article. I
will be printing it out to refer to it again. This is what I needed to know, to reassure me of what to do when I get resistance to my "niceness" so I can keep it up and strengthen my bond with my daughter instead of just get her to release her emotions. Thank
Paul Lewis commented on 19-Nov-2011 01:21 PM
Oh gosh... This is my little monster (girl) too. I'm a dad at my wits end. And I hate getting mad at her. But it feels like she keeps pushing and pushing.. Trying to get me to pop!!! Boom!!!
Laura Markham commented on 21-Nov-2011 10:52 AM
Paul- A friendly reminder. Your daughter is indeed pushing and pushing. But she isn't trying to get you to pop. I know it feels like that. But she is really trying to get you to provide her with the connection, the safety, and the kind limit, that will
help HER to "pop." Then she can let out all those bad feelings and reconnect to you. Our children push us to help them. They count on us to be the grown-ups, to regulate our own emotions. Good luck!
Anonymous commented on 12-Dec-2011 12:20 PM
I am so happy to have found this, I am also struggling to connect or even like my 4-year old daughter. It seems like we are always in a battle field and I just don't know how to stop and change direction with her. I am ashamed of the way I've handled myself
in the last couple of years of her life, and how I've let it go on as long as it has. I love her to pieces but find I have a hard time even wanting to spend anytime with her or be in the same room with her as I'm afraid it will lead to some time or incident.
I'm afraid if I don't get this under control and impliment some changes right now that as she gets older we will grow even further apart and that it will also affect her younger sister who witnesses it all. Thank you for your outlines and suggestions, this
type of issue can be so isolating as a parent as we are all taught to believe that having children is this perfect magical path in life, so when we are met with these challenges, it's difficult to not feel like a failure and that you are forever scarring them.
Sam commented on 29-Apr-2012 10:46 PM
I recently got married and i have a son from a previous marriage. He is Six and is usually very well mannered. Recently he has been acting out. Not eating at meal times when he is usually not very picky. being rude and saying and doing hurtfull things
to both of us. Mostly to my husband. My husband and i have been together for four years. Kaden (my son) usually lives with his biological father and his wife through the week days and with us on the weekends. but now he has come to live with us full time due
to my ex being deployed. Kaden has been living with us for a month and a half straight. He will get in trouble and when punished he will say he doesnt care. he will gloat and say mean things to us. he rolls his eyes at my husband and my husband thinks he is
teaching him a lesson by adding more punishment... its not helping. Kaden just keeps acting out. I am going to try the advice from above. but getting my husband to do the same is going to be hard. he feels like i am being too nice and not teaching Kaden a

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