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My 5 year old is having behavior issues
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My 5 year old is having behavior issues

My daughter is 5 1/2 years old. For several months now my daughter has been having behavior issues. It seems to be escelating. Her behaviors include:  squeezing paints on her brother and sister's beds and belongings, breaking up pieces of styrofoam all over the house to make "snow". One night, after coming home from working 3rd shift, I found my daughter sprawled out on the living room couch with a face covered in chocolate. In the kitchen she tried to make Ovaltine in and entire gallon of milk, it was all over the floor along with items for making a PB and J sandwich, and shredded cheddar cheese every where.  In the living room there was a large mixing bowl filled with a full bag of sugar and a pitcher of water and several small toys.  (Apparently they were "ice scating")  She tried at some point to clean the mess up as there was a washcloth and broom out but, in the end she moved a carpet over the spilled sugar mixture.  She gets into lotion and baby powder and speads it on her bed or in cabinets.  She knows what she is doing is wrong and will sometimes try to hide it.  She spent the night at a friends house 2 days ago and she got up in the middle of the night and started to mix the milk and juices together in the fridge, spilling a container, then abandoning the plan and leaving the fridge wide open.  She's never done this outside of our own home before.  She says she knows what she's doing is wrong and she's not supposed to do it.  She says she doesn't know why she is doing this and that nothing is bothering her.  I don't know what to do.  Outside of these behaviors she is a well mannered, happy little girl.  No school or social problems, not screaming or arguing.  No punishments, consequences, or loss of priveleges seems to work.  I have taken her to be seen by the Dr., he says she seems fine, "just a little to inquisitive for her own good."  She is disrupting the family, we need help.
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Hello,
   being inquisitive and creative is indeed a wonderful thing, but kids have to learn they can't cross the line into being destructive or inconsiderate! I can certainly see why this is creating problems for you and the family (and since you are the mother, I'm guessing that you get stuck with cleaning up the majority of all these messes). I agree with you that tolerating this is not good for anybody--including your daughter who won't get invited to too many sleep overs or play dates if she continues this sort of behavior. She is also making her parents and brothers and sisters angry at her, which again is bad for everyone. Its crossed the line from just too much creativity.

Ok, so the first thing that jumps out at me is that you need somebody to provide more supervision for her while you are at work. Working moms have it hard enough without having to come home to a big mess, and its not fair to you that whoever was supposed to be watching her was not. This sounds more like a family oriented problem where members may not be working well together as a team. If I'm reading between the lines correctly, other family members will need to 'step up' to help in the times when you are at work or cooking or doing the laundry. Her 'crimes' are 'crimes of opportunity' that would not be happening if someone was watching more closely. Even a couple of babygates to make the kitchen off limits, cabinet locks, and a refrigerator lock (you can get all these at the baby supply store or online) could be a big help if someone can't provide direct supervision at all times. If her siblings are not old enough or mature enough to be responsible, it is often a cheap option to have a high school or community college student come by for a couple hours a day to play with her help diffuse some of that energy.

One common thread her in her behaviors seems to be the combination of being both unsupervised and understimulated. I promise I am not trying to add to your stress level as a working mom, but if we think about whats the 'set up' for these behaviors, one of the big ones is just that she has the opportunity. Most problematic child behaviors are actually very predictable--we just don't often notice whats triggering them because we see the world from an adult's perspective. If you can get a handle on why they happen, when they happen and what she is trying to accomplish through her behaviors, you will know how to change them.

When we try to change behaviors, the main goal is to teach a child substitute better behaviors that will fulfill the same need. For example, if she is bored, she should play with art supplies on the table instead of experimenting with food. So if we can assume that your daughter is probably seeking more stimulation, we can think about what else she could do to get the same good feeling without causing problems. She may be a kid who needs more mental and sensory stimulation--getting to put her hands in stuff, ripping Styrofoam, building things, squeezing play-doh. You can steer her towards toys and non-staining art supplies that would be appropriate for her to use. Then teach her what things she can do that are appropriate and where it is ok to do them (ripping Styrofoam outside may be fine, in the house may not). Teach her to tell someone when she is bored and ask for help selecting an activity. Have her practice this several times a day and praise her. You can make her a picture menu of things its ok to do when she is bored and put it up on the fridge.

But the other piece I am detecting here is that she's getting out some anger or frustration through provocative, attention seeking behaviors. Deliberately messing up her brother and sister's things is the kind of behavior that is sending a message-- that she is unhappy/angry/frustrated about something. Its not acceptable and I don't mean to excuse it, but if you can try to 'walk in her shoes' and think about why its happening (jealousy, sibling rivalry, brother and sister ignoring or picking on her), you will have a better understanding of how to stop it. She really may just need some more attention, five year olds do need a lot and always want more--thats just their age. But making people angry to get attention is a maladaptive strategy. So,as a first step, everyone in the family should shut their doors whenever they are not in their rooms. Everyone should let her know that those rooms are off limits to her unless she is invited in them. You can put a red paper STOP sign on each person's door to remind her. Little kids are very literal, and love signs. You should also talk with your family about what events lead up to this destructive behavior. Was someone unkind to her? Was she left alone? Was it a day where she did not get as much attention as she wanted (for example, when you worked a longer shift or when a sibling was sick)? Putting on your detective hat can help you find the clues to predict when she might be likely to misbehave again so you can steer her towards better ways of expressing herself before she succumbs to temptation.

To summarize so far, you can try: upping the supervision, becoming a 'detective' for events that trigger this behavior, removing opportunities (gating the kitchen, putting messy art supplies away) and increasing her opportunities to get creative and messy in acceptable ways.Next item on the 'to do' list is to find a psychotherapist or behavioral specialist who can help you implement a behavior plan. The whole point of a behavior plan is to teach your daughter to chose acceptable behaviors instead of problematic behaviors. Having a professional is faster and often much more effective than trying to do it alone. I always give the example that trying to do your own behavior plan is like trying to give yourself a hair cut--you just don't have the perspective you need to make sure it will turn out right. Ask friends, teachrs, church members, or your pediatrician for a recommendation for a trained, licensed psychologist or other mental health professional who specializes in young children. Your insurance company may have a list of providers, so that can be a good place to start. In the case of problematic behavior in young children, most of the treatment should include parent coaching. I would advise against any clinician who wants to work exclusively with your daughter, because you need to learn the skills to stop this behavior. Play therapy alone might work, but it would take a very long time and you want this behavior under control sooner rather than later.

If you absolutely can not access any behavior help from a professional, there are some books to try. The Kazdin Method by Dr. Alan Kazdin is a super guide to how to change behavior. I also like How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (they have a great chapter on how to do joint problem solving--I've used it with my own kids as well as students and patients!).

Best Wishes!
Rebecca
Disclaimer: This post was written for informational purposes only. It is never intended to replace face to face medical or psychological care. This post is not intended to establish a clinician-patient relationship, nor to give or rule-out a diagnosis.

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Rebecca Resnik, PsyDBlank
MindWell Clinical Psychology
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