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My SO and I are concerned about his 5yo's recent behavior. She has become sneaky, rebellious, defiant, manipulative, and slightly physical with her 4yo sister, but never with other children. It truly feels like we are dealing with a teenager.

He and their mother divorced almost a year ago, and we know the disruption of what was once their normal life has some place in blame (even though the mother was very absent.) When they are with us (50/50 custody,) they have a clean home, daily routine, balanced meals, family game/movie/story time. We are strict but also very loving. At the children's mother's home, however, she has basically moved in her boyfriend of 3 months, who has 4 VERY rambunctious children, she does not promote routine, allows her children to eat only what they want (fast food, mac-n-cheese for all meals, etc,) only pays attention to them when there is a camera around, the list goes on. She has also began emotionally caring for her new beau's children more so than her own. There is no talking to her about this issue, as she swears it only happens in our home, and it's the 4yo that acts up.

When she doesn't think she can be seen or heard, the 5yo attempts to make her sister do things she knows are unacceptable. The other day she quietly told her sister to mess with the bathtub faucet, while the 4yo pleaded with her "No, I don't want to get in trouble! I don't want to!" And she kept trying and trying until we walked in. When her sister asks her questions, she either ignores her or yells at her. She'll lie several times to our faces and say that her sister did something we caught HER in, and when she finally stops lying, she rolls her eyes, huffs, and says things like, "Ok, look," or "Fine, I did it." When she's put into time out or privileges get taken away, she is well informed on what she has done wrong, but when we ask her what she did, she looks away, smirks, and just says, "Don't we go to mommy's today?" or "I don't know" until we sit there for 5 minutes, and she decides to admit she knows what she did. Even when we have our heart-to-hearts and she starts acting like a well behaved child again, she explains, in great detail, why NOT to do things, but not why she did them.

I'm a full advocate of spanking, as it was done to me twice in my life, and it only built respect, not fear, for my grandmother, however, we both feel it inappropriate for a non-blood relative to physically chastise a child. He is nervous to spank because the ex would probably claim he was being abusive so she could get full custody. (Luckily we are in a state that wouldn't go for that, but it would still be a hassle.)

Does anyone have methods they have tried for these behaviors and the kids who JUST DON'T get it? We know she's seeking attention, but she gets so much positive attention from us, that we don't know why or how to deal with her acting out like this. I've been a professional nanny for years now, and I've never experienced such manipulative and dismissive behavior from a child, even ones from divorced homes... My SO says the way she boldly manipulates others, and lies so quickly and firmly reminds him of his ex. HELP!

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I was digging around in the archives and came across this post here parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/3906/… . . . give it a read. It could probably help with some foundational understanding –  monsto Jan 29 '13 at 14:58
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Ugh.

I have a first wife, too. She also was a fool. Still is. Quick tip unrelated to the forum: If you break things down to the most obvious base elements, she simply cannot be argue without sounding like a moron.

"So I punish the child for lying and you really think I'm being abusive?"

Which is the ham-handed segue into the topic at hand. What has worked very well for me is reserving spanking only for lying. My kids have known, since they were old enuf to know it, that the one thing that gets your hide tanned is lying to me. 1 swat per year followed by 1 minute per year of time out (really it's a cool down) and then a bit of discussion about why they got it. Consequently, there's not very many spankings in their past, but they don't lie to me either.

I know that somebody is going to downvote me for going off topic, but screw it... The relationship with both the ex and the kid is all kinda tangled in there together. If you downvote this post, don't be a wuss about it... put in a comment.

So What I'm hearing is this: the only time the ex is a parent is when the Significant Other acts, or doesnt, based on what he's afraid the ex might do.

Sound familiar? This is classic bully. A 4 yr old will play on the other side of the room. A 14yr old will use a different bus stop and walk all the way around the school. A 24 yr old will change the things they'd otherwise say and do. And it's all to avoid confrontation and cow-tow to the bully's wishes, especially when they're not around, just so the target doesn't have to deal with the bully's shit.

You guys can't do that. You're both clearly hamstrung by fear of this person's reaction. Eff That. And here's some tuff love: Grow up. Own it.

This part is to your SO mainly because of the pronouns I used

In order to effectively take care of the child, you have got to put your foot down to the ex. You've let her go, now you need to give back the parts that you don't want hangin around anymore... kinda like that slightly burned smell in the air after making grilled cheese sandwiches or when micro-popcorn cooks too much.

Do what you need to do with your child, and tell the woman to her face

"You're not here when she is. This is my house and this the way I run it."

"Well, we'll just see what the court has to say about it."

"Bring it."

And walk away. Go get a drink of water, go blow your nose, get your coat on, whatever. End the convo.

Because you know what? If you're very clear VERY clear about the rules surrounding any punishment you mete out to your 5yo, and you make sure the ex knows what they are, there isn't a family lawyer in the world that will try to take that to court. 2ndarily, legal crap is expensive... and would I be wrong to say that she's not that great with money?

So when you say "Bring it." you're doing a couple things

  1. You establish domain. You're kicking the ex out of your house even tho she doesn't live htere. I've mentioned domain in past posts around here, and in situations with a child, it's very important that domain is clear.
  2. You diffuse the bully fist called Court. They like to throw that out there. It's like raising a fist. Make sure you have done everything correctly, then call her bluff.
  3. You show you believe in something. Do you believe that the child's behaviour is so bad that you're willing to go to court over it? If so, you need to fix it.

At no point did I mention 'trying to work it out' with the ex. If she comes to you, then sure... go to a public place and discuss it over dinner where nobody is comfortable yelling or being an asshole.

But the point here is that you do not give her the power of believing that you need her permission for you to do things in your house. Again: domain. Someone will argue that "the 5 yo is a child to both of them". To that comment I say 'you are right,' but that's not what's in contention here... The problem is that he's changing his methods of child rearing and outright not doing things because of fear, not because of co-parenting agreements. You've got to deal with the fear and establish a foundation before you can amicably co-parent.

As For the daughter... (to both of you)

Signs of bullying? No. But it is a sign that she's pushing as far as you'll let her get away with it.

You need to stop putting up with it. If you're aware that she's trying and trying, then you're letting it go on too long. My opinion is that you should start slamming gates on her (metaphorically of course). Snatch her out of the situation and put her straight in punishment.

Just to reiterate, these are the things that worked for me. Your mileage may vary, but you asked for ideas and I'm just doing my job around this forum by bringing my own experience into the mix.

1) Control the interaction.

She has clearly too much control with you and the SO. If she's able to say some of the things you quoted in the post, then you're allowing her to run the conversations.

Reminder: She's 5. She shouldn't be allow to run anything. You are the parent. Be the parent.

So when you've busted her, don't bother arguing... because she's 5. Go straight to step 2 then 3 and accept nothing less than her acceptance of the full punishment (1 min per year of timeout or whatever it is was always good for me). Again do not converse. She's 5 and it will lead nowhere. Be the parent, lay down the law, tell her what's right and wrong, be prepared for hissy fits, and be consistent.

2) Detail the situation.

What I've done is gotten down on their level, holding them tight by the side so they can't get away.

(pointing) I was standing right there... around that corner. You were standing here, and you said to your sister "Come on! Hack the bank! Nobody will know and then you'll have all that money!"

(turning them to face me) That's wrong. You know it, I know it. Don't forget what I told you about lying... That's what happened, right?

3) Punish.

Never "let it go this one time". Do not argue with her thinking "maybe this time was different". Do not become the Court of Daddy and allow her to plead her case. She's 5. Like all 5 yr olds she has a very very short list of goals, most of which have nothing to do with other people.

Make sure she knows what the consequences (punishment) for her actions are then follow thru, everytime, same way. She will look for a chink in the armor, and it will take a while (months of interactions), but you're after the long term goal here and you must be consistent.

Bottom line: You have to change the atmosphere. Hard. Even if you don't do what I've outlined here, some kind of a dramatic change is needed and she's got to know, very clearly, those things that are unacceptable and that mommy (the ex) isn't going to save her from punishments at your house.

I'm a forceful parent. Sometimes I get concerned looks in public when I say things like "what the hell are you doing?" but it works for me because I'm a rather assertive person. And sometimes I've made assumptions and accusations that were wrong. But I apologize directly, just like I would expect of my kids, ("I'm sorry honey. I misunderstood) and we all move on. All taht being said, the above is what I think you should do.

Last couple things on the relationship... the little one may try to tell mom "I don't want to go over there!" The ex, being manipulative, will tell you guys as much. Your SO just needs to remind her that it's in the divorce settlement. And that's not raising a fist, it's raising a rolled up document. Because if there's anything that a court WILL hear and deal with, it's somebody refusing to abide by their part of the settlement.

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I would upvote this a million times if I could! –  Meg Coates Jan 31 '13 at 14:56
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First, you should know that five is a typical age for a lot of "testing the waters" When I started teaching Middle School, people used to say, "must be quite a leap from preschool and kindergarten." and I laughed replying, "Nope, same shitty attitudes, they're just focusing their attitudes at different things."

Obviously, in some ways I was joking, but thought it might help to know that on some level, some of what you are going through is fairly normal.

Having said that, it sounds like things are pretty complicated for this little girl and while that shouldn't excuse her behavior, I would consider a therapist for her. Sometimes Divorce is the best option for a couple (so please don't take this as a critique), but it is always hard on the kids. Considering what you are saying about her mom it has got to be a thousand times harder for her than if "mom" was more "with it" and consistent. A therapist that specializes in this field may be able to help the five-year-old deal with her "stuff" while also helping you with options and ideas for how to discipline her most effectively within the situation you are in. Even if you deal with the lying thing, other behavioral issues are likely to continue to arise if things are that unstable for her. It also may help down the road if you should ever decide to seek a greater percentage of the custody, depending on what gets discovered in talks between the therapist and child.

Monsto makes a few great points including that punishment for lying should be more severe than punishments for having done something and not lying about it. However, I don't think spanking is necessarily, your only option, or likely to be all that helpful. In my experience, "punishments" often don't work as well as "natural consequences" anyway. Kids see punishments as handed down on high, whereas consequences are something they have control over. Its really just semantics, but important semantics.

Instead of Punishments Try:

  • Not giving her attention. Don't talk to her a bunch about it. She
    knows what she has done and "talking to her" - even yelling at her is attention. If you already have a consequence in mind, give it to her. If one that is "natural" isn't forthcoming. Delay. Just say, "Hmm. . . well I guess we'll have to wait and see what the consequences for this one will be." Then walk away with a really disappointed look on your face and demeanor. Make sure you do follow up with a consequence though. "Remember yesterday you did X, well because of that, today I need you to . . ." When she says, "but I" you say, "When you make choices, there are always consequences, some are fun, some aren't." Don't say anything more. "But can't I." "No. You chose a negative consequence when you chose to. . ."

  • When she lies, in addition to the natural consequences (such as she has to clean up the mess that was caused, has to do a nice act for the little sister of some sort because she was mean to her. . . she loses "trust." You can't trust her to be in the bathroom by herself apparently. So, she doesn't get to be in there alone. Someone will have to sit in the bathroom with her - or the door left open. If she does things that lead you to not be able to trust her anywhere without you specifically watching, you can't trust her to be alone. Because you can't trust her to be alone, if you have to get the dishes done, she has to sit in the kitchen and either help or wait. (Trust me, this will suck more for her than for you in the long run). It means not having as much time to play, it means absolutely no independence. She may as well be two again. Let her figure out how to win your trust back and then ease up just a little bit. The minute she lies, clamp down again. You have to be consistent and disciplined with your follow through, but if you can remain calm and cool about administering things so that it is always, "Well you lied to us." Shrug, "Its really a bummer. It sure would be nice if you would make trustworthy choices." The message will get through eventually.

Make Sure She Sees congratulations to the four year old for saying "no."

In the meantime, while the lies cannot go without consequence (nor other negative behaviors), it sounds like this 5 year old needs something she isn't getting. While it may seem she has a loving, supportive and caring relationship with your SO and maybe yourself, you said you think she is seeking attention, meaning that even if she has the relationship from your perspective, something is likely still missing from hers (even if she can't put it into words). This answer to another question about a "defiant" five-year-old, probably has some enlightening ideas to consider (even if you don't subscribe to the entire posting, it may illicit some new ideas to give it a read.)

While the question this answer is referencing is about a child that throws temper tantrums, the examples given in the answer are all great examples of "natural consequences." and how they work.

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