Advice on 5 year old's behavioral issues?
September 1, 2005 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Advice wanted on how to use a carrot (instead of a stick) to reduce a bunch of very frustrating behavioral issues with our 5 year old...

We're having some very frustrating behavior issues with our 5 year old that mostly center around his 20 month old brother. Our main problems are: stating repeatedly that he hates his brother, stating that he hates us, sneaky rough play with his brother, and (curiously) total total total meltdowns at teeth-brushing time.

We realize that a lot of this has to do with having to share his parents more than ever before, as the younger one becomes more capable/destructive. and we've been trying to make time for more one-on-one time with the older one, but we're still seing LOTS of these hassles and tantrums.

Has anyone had any luck with "incentive programs", where say, daily good behavior on certain issues earns a sticker to put on a chart, and when the chart is filled, the child can choose a new toy or book? (Chapter books are a big carrot for this guy.)

Or is this just missing the problem? We'd definitely like some sort of carrot, instead of a stick, for dealing with this stuff.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total)
Behavioral management charts work with some kids. I don't always find that they work with mine. That being said, I'm using one right now (loosely). I bought a big roll of tickets and they can get good tickets for good behavior but bad tickets for bad behavior. I collect the bad tickets in a jar that gets emptied every morning. If they collect a lot of bad tickets then there is a punishment. I've read that time outs do not work unless the child is involved in a pleasurable activity. So I make the punishment unspecific until I see that there is something they want to do. That doesn't always work. Some kids need to know exactly what the consequences are. And I do that sometimes too. Sorry, I'm not being very exact right now, am I?

What kind of discipline have you been using when your son plays rough with his brother? The teeth brushing time is understandable. It's a transition time. I wonder if some of the behavior is age related and not related to his brother. Is he starting kindergarten soon? My kids always freak out a bit at the beginning of something and at the end of something (the school year, camp, vacation, etc.).

That's not to say that you shouldn't manage the behavior. Figuring out what motivates him is a huge help. It's good to know what his carrots are. But also realize that he has some reasons for what he is doing (psychological and/or physical growth spurt) that might be in addition to the new brother.

Brazelton has a good book called _Touchpoints_. He's got one that is 0-3 and 3-6 and then one that has 0-6. I think he has a good understanding of the transitions kids go through.

Good luck.

-sacre bleu's wife
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:36 PM on September 1, 2005

Nighttime hassles are often a problem with routine. Does he have the same routine, day in and day out, in the morning, at lunch, at playtime, in the late afternoon, dinner time, reading time, bath time, bed time? If not, the teeth-brushing stuff could really be about that. Also, watch Nanny 911 or similar, and you'll see that they use age-appropriate time-outs in situations like this. Go down to his level, use a kind but firm voice, and place him in his "time out spot" for a minute per year of age. Make sure he understands why he's there, how long he has to be there, and when it's over, give him praise, wash it all away, and go back to the fun activity or dinnertime. I don't have experience with the reward system, and while it makes something visible and tangible for them, I think the above poster is correct, in that it has to be monitored really well. Otherwise, you see parents in Target, hopelessly trying to scream at their kids that "you'll get a black star on the chart unless you quit crying" - those threats are absolutely harmful, I believe. You obviously don't sound like that, but it's something to keep in mind -- the chart/reward can start to become this all-encompassing barter system, instead of relying on explanation and more appropriate conversations.

For the sibling stuff, it seems that "we've been trying to make time for more one-on-one time" doesn't really sound like you're confident about that aspect. I would work on allowing one parent to spend time with him - rotate fairly often, but really make it so that each kid does get parent time without having to compete for attention.

Also, how much is the elder involved with the younger? Sometimes these tantrums are because they're expected to constantly be "mommy's little helper" and rule their life around the baby, and sometimes they're effectively shut-out of the caregiving. Neither extreme is ideal, so perhaps work on how he can "share" with his little brother, and even teach him a few things. But make sure to give him off time, where he can play by himself. Does he have his own room, or own play area?

sacre_bleu's wife is also right that at some ages, kids just go through these transitions. School is probably coming up, etc.; those things are just manifested in a different way for kids at different ages.
posted by fionab at 6:48 PM on September 1, 2005

Don't take this as an insult but I highly suggest you pick up the book Don't Shoot the Dog!: the New Art of Teaching and Training. It's not just for training dogs and will help you understand "carrot" conditioning of behaviour.
posted by dobbs at 6:53 PM on September 1, 2005

In my experience, you've got to basically just accept some level of this, since he's dealing with a huge life change that can't be a happy one for him. Nevertheless, being the dad of two young boys who are just about a year older--each--than yours, here's what we've found:

1) The deferred thing works for incentives, but not for disincentives. In other words, stickers, smiley faces, whatever, for good behavior work pretty well, since they encourage him to look out on a longer horizon when he's _inclined_ to look out on that longer horizon. For unacceptable behavior, though, when he's acting like a snotty 3-year-old, giving him a "bad sticker" is probably going to have zero effect. The whole problem, at that point, is that he's incapable of looking at the consequences of his actions, and at five, it's not really realistic to expect him to do that when he's at his worst.

Bad behavior needs to be nipped in the bud, _in the moment_. My two boys both know that when I start counting down from "three", if I get to "one", then they're in trouble, right then and there. (I'm not saying that that's some kind of magic panacea, but it does get them to snap to attention 75% of the time.) If I get down to "one", then there's an immediate time-out, or the GameBoy goes away for the rest of the day, or whatever's appropriate for the situation--they just know that they definitely don't want to let Daddy get down to "one".

2) That's not going to actually fix anything. That kind of approach will probably help rein in the outrageous behavior a bit, but not because he feels better...just because he doesn't want to get punished. (I'm not saying that's bad--it's the operating level of much of a five-year-old's existence--but it doesn't fix the problem, just the symptom.)

The only way to resolve this issue long-term is to continually reinforce how your relationship to him is unique, in a way that's fair to the younger brother. As an example, our oldest is definitely aware that "he's the boy who made us a mommy and daddy". We weren't parents until he came along, and he's very proud of that fact. He's got a very, very active and charming little brother, who steals the spotlight every chance he gets, but the big brother has a pride of place in being the oldest that doesn't seem to bother his little brother. (At least, not for now.)

That's basically what's working for us, today, but I'm sure the dynamics will change dramatically again in a year. In the meantime, though, I think if you stay focused on very, very immediate feedback when he mis-behaves, and a lot of love and affection in the ways that make him feel that he's still special, you'll be just fine. (Till he turns thirteen. Then you'll pull all your hair out.)
posted by LairBob at 7:12 PM on September 1, 2005

First off, make sure that not only are you spending time with your 5 year old, but also listening to him? It is an age where the emotional body is developing and he may not have the right words to describe his feelings yet. Perhaps you can do some exercises to draw out how he feels. Draw pictures that express emotions, look at photos and talk about what the people are feeling in them, show him how the body reacts to sadness -- pain in the belly, being choked up, etc.

This might even be enough to transform the situation. Kids often just need to be heard.. and then the energy has been dealt with and now it is time for something new.

Like you mentioned about transition -- younger kids just don't deal well with change. In fact, older folks don't either -- big stress inducers are job change, moving, begin/ending relationships, etc. People are just stuck in the same circles, I guess.. anyway, it might help to show him that change is a natural process.. kids love to see how the lives of their favorite animals are like their own; birds shed feathers, some animals get fat for hibernation, etc. Seasons, temperatures, day/night, there are examples of change all around and if you can draw them into your child's life, it might help them to understand that it is natural and not something that is different and being forced upon them.

I think it is very important to mirror the real world in the home. By this I mean, the real world has rules and if the rules are broken, a punishment is given. When we follow the rules, we don't always get a reward either -- we get daily life. As such, the punishment needs to be harsh, however it needs to fit the crime. It might be constructive to pull him aside (arrest) and talk about what has just happened (trial) and perhaps work with him to determine what a fitting punishment would be. At 5, there must be some favorite toys or books that can be removed for a while. Instead of participating in a favorite activity, perhaps an apology picture could be drawn, etc.

Hope that helps you some..
posted by dhammala at 7:13 PM on September 1, 2005

I have two boys 5 and 2. We also had issues after lil' bro started walking/talking. A few suggestions :

My wife has monthly "dates" with my 5 year old. They go to the zoo, movies, or just shopping. It gives him a sense of his individual worth and makes up for the things once "his" and now "shared"

I include him when teaching his brother. I make it his responsibliity to assist me in showing his brother how to do chores, learn, read, etc. He has even taken ownership of some of these lessons, and is involved in his brother's development to an extent of bragging about his briother's achievments..

We have also tried to engourage him to lead by example. We shower praise when he demonstrates proper politeness in front of his brother, or takes the time to explain why there are rules they must follow.

We also used a poster board with a SpongeBob drawing and boxes to be checked every time he helped with his brother. After all the boxes were checked his reward was an extra 1/2 hour bedtime extension (SpongeBob time). This worked so well we have one on the fridge with different goals/rewards any time we want to encourage/reward a certain behavior.

I also have a secret weapon not all will agree with. We bought a Playstation2 and some kid's games. My 5 year-old can only play this on the weekends, and for a strictly limited time. This is the ultimate carrot. The mere threat of a weekend without a chance to play has completely replaced harsher forms of punshment. (OK, OK it is a reward for Dad too!)

YMMV---Good Luck!
posted by HyperBlue at 7:39 PM on September 1, 2005

HyperBlue writes "We bought a Playstation2 and some kid's games...This is the ultimate carrot."

Oh yeah--I can't emphasize what an important part of the reward structure this is. Our older boy _loves_ video games, and the ability to play games or not is definitely a big part of his incentive. He has to earn the chance to play for 30 mins or so, and when he's on the border line behaviorally, it definitely helps remind him of the longer-term objective. (Plus, as my wife constantly tweaks me, it does mean that I'm raising the perfect video game partner. Which is a bonus.)
posted by LairBob at 9:15 PM on September 1, 2005

My one suggestion is regarding tooth brushing time. Since it's something that Big Boys do, is he a big enough boy to pick out a special fancy brush and pick out his own Big Boy Toothpaste at the store?
posted by puddinghead at 10:27 PM on September 1, 2005

Good suggestions above - we used a little chart with star stickers on it for special treats. It worked well for one child, not at all for the other.

I think it's hard for adults to realize what a disaster having a baby sibling can be for a first born. There were all kinds of books we used to read to our first born - "Meet Your New Sister!" type things. They were ok in emphasizing the important new role they have as the big one, but I felt they all missed the point by failing to mention the extreme loss in status a first born goes through.

To convey the situation, I was thinking of writing a book called "Meet My New Husband!" that would parallel the kids book, except it would be about a wife getting a brand new husband. The wife would say things like "I know you're sad darling, but you'll always be special - you're my First Husband!" to give a sense of the absurdity of the books and the catastrophe of the situation.

Definitely put limits on roughness - I found that my older daughter enjoyed hearing that she had to be careful because she was *much* stronger than her little sister. I personally didn't mind it when she said that she hated her little sister, but my wife didn't like that. I just felt that it was how she felt, that I'd probably feel the same way, and it was ok to feel that way as long as she didn't hit or do mean things to her. We put her in charge of reading stories now and then to the little one to be helpful. She also got to stay up later, and those things helped her manage her feelings of loss by making her her feel more grown up.
posted by jasper411 at 9:24 AM on September 2, 2005

I second dobbs' recommendation for Don't Shoot the Dog. Very helpful in understanding ways of encouraging and discouraging behavior in people, dogs, dolphins, etc.
posted by lobakgo at 9:56 AM on September 2, 2005

With children as young as five, long term (days or a week) is difficult to understand. Incentives also.

Stick with timeouts. Time out rules:

1. If you get out of the chair or talk, the time out starts over.
2. Do not talk or look at a child that is in a time out.
3. Put the child somewhere where they can see the clock.
4. Start with 5 minutes. Add a minute to every consecutive time out in a one day period.
5. Kids want attention and approval. Don't provide it for bad behavior. Act poorly, get put in a timeout and ignored.
posted by ewkpates at 11:06 AM on September 2, 2005

« Older Military personnel on civilian flights?   |   How much oil is in a barrel? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.