My wife and I are pulling our hair out. Our 6-year-old daughter behaves very well at school and with others, yet at home, when it's just us, she is the complete polar opposite. We have had to restrain her from physically hurting us more than a few times and being aggressive towards us and her 3-year-old brother. She says she wishes her brother was dead and uses the hate word a lot. When she eventually calms down she demands food, normally something sweet and apologises for her behaviour. We are trying to understand the triggers. Any advice?
I commend you for trying to understand the triggers, but I also hope you understand that this is not the solution to her behavior, at least not the whole solution. Sure, you can help avoid some of the triggers, but you also need to teach her how to deal with things she does not like in a manner that is acceptable.
It sounds like at school the rules are clear and negative consequences for bad behavior are clear enough, and she is capable of understanding that and controlling her behavior accordingly. Are you doing the same thing at home? Are there negative consequences for this bad behavior?
Understand that making her apologize is not much of a negative consequence, and it sounds like you have even made it into a positive thing for her, since she gets a sweet treat of her choice for it. If this is the extent of your discipline, then you are training her to be the kind of woman you see as adults who behave fine at work, but are hellions and divas in their personal lives.
My first child is a poster child for compliance. All I had to do to let her know she did something wrong was raise an eyebrow and she'd be broken down in tears. My slightest displeasure was almost always all the discipline she needed.
Not so with our second child. He was the poster child for strong-willed children. At 1.5 years old, he started hitting people when they displeased him. We immediately disciplined every occurrence. Sometimes this included a spanking, but those were always measured, not done in anger, and with an explanation of why he was being disciplined. He kept doing it for two to three months, every day, multiple times a day. Then, one day, he stopped, cold. The next day, he started biting. Again, the same routine, multiple times a day, every day for two months. After constant discipline for that, he again turned the switch off. The next day he started making himself throw up. This was the toughest because we could not at first and not always know that it was intentional. But after two months of consistent discipline (read discipline = negative consequences), he stopped that cold. We only disciplined when we saw him stick his hand in his mouth to make himself throw up, and the discipline was often just telling him no in a strong tone and making him clean up the mess and then grounding him to his room for an hour or so (while we did the real clean up).
Today, my son is 18 years old, about to graduate from high-school with honors and a National Merit Scholar designation. He is extremely respectful and obedient, and the comment I most often get from his teachers is that he is a delight to have in class. A few months ago, he told me that I was his best friend, and I replied, in all honesty, that he is mine.
The point is that loving our children means that we must not tolerate wrong behavior. We must show them what kind of behaviors will not be tolerated so that when they grow up, they are not surprised that the world gives them negative consequences for those same habits. Her future spouse will not last long by her side if she behaves this way. Her children will not have a healthy relationship with her either. What are you doing to ingrain that in her?
But I close with one strong warning. If you do discipline, you must make sure that for every ounce of discipline, you give ten ounces of love, affection and positive messages. You love her - she must hear that every day, and especially even as you discipline her, but not only at those times. You think she is an amazing, beautiful, awesome person - tell her so when there is absolutely no apparent reason for you to say so. This, more than anything, will help her not only fear/dislike displeasing you, but want to love you back with her behavior.
In my opinion, if you give her a reward for bad behaviour, you are telling her to keep on acting out.
Parenting is the hardest job.
As a behaviourist, I can share a few things. If you allow a tantrum to run on and then you give in, you have bought yourself another tantrum. If you know you will have to give in because of something like going to work, give in immediately.
If you start putting your foot down, it will get much worse before it gets better.
I think that when your child is calm, you inform her of the new rules. You set up a reward system and make it easy enough for her to be successful. The rewards are not ever for food or anything that costs money.
My best advice is to stop it now. It will be very hard. Her school may have ideas for you, too.
It's nice to hear about a parent that actually cares about their little ones (no matter how challenging the situation is at the present time) and how to find the root cause of the behavior and correct it.
It's difficult to really understand the entire situation and history in such a short write-up. However, i'd question the following items below:
Are you and your wife 'honestly' consistent with rewards & discipline? I can tell you as a parent of 4, that if there is the slightest break in consistency, this will destroy all the discipline/training that you and your wife have worked so hard together to achieve. At their school, they are most likely disciplined for poor behavior.
Do you believe that your child may be striving for attention? I'm curious, how old is the brother? Older? Younger? Is it possible that she is no longer receiving the attention if the brother is younger? Is it possible that if the brother is older and involved in sports or after school programs, this is taking away from her attention? Do you believe that she may feel like she's lacking attention?
Have there been any recent major changes in lifestyle or major life change that could be impacting her?
Who has she been hanging out with at school?
Also, I can't stress enough on the importance of Mom and Dad being on the same page and consistent. If the behavior warrants discipline, refrain from yelling or getting angry and strictly stick with being rational and calm - but consistent and firm. Personally, I don't believe in hitting any child (unless the child is too young and can't 'reason' - say walking into the street - then a very gentle tap on the bum enough to startle them would work). Again, emphasis on 'tap' enough to startle them - not to cause pain. Regardless of inconvenience to the parents, the stated discipline must happen... A great example that I've witnessed through friends is the typical - "If you don't stop acting like this, we're going to leave the groceries and the store and take you home for a time out." they then repeat this "if you do this just ONCE more...." and so forth. This is not a good practice to get into... If the child acts up in the store, take the groceries up to the front desk and tell them that you need to leave them behind and take your child home... It won't take long until your child realizes that whatever you or your wife say, is golden and the rules won't ever bend...very important...
I do agree with one of the other posters regarding this 'change in discipline' will become much harder, before it gets better. However, this is the only way to correct the issue (based on the limited information that I've extracted from the write-up). Trust me on this... You're far better off correcting discipline issues with a 6 year old than a 15 or 25 year old.
You still have time, but stay in there and consider having nightly 'chats' with your daughter (and other children) and really see how their day was...
Consider having her maintain a private journal that she can write and/or draw pictures to reflect on her day. This little journal could reveal a lot about how she views her world and could help you out.
Once you feel like you have a clear approach that you agree on and are consistent with, if it's still not working as well as you want, you can also try a book that I've found very helpful called "The Explosive Child" by Dr. Ross Greene. I'm not trying to say that every kid who does this is worth labeling this way, and obviously, there are other factors, like your consistency, her hunger, her mental/physical/emotional fatigue, and the fact that kids feel safer around their parents to let down the big kid persona they've been working hard at all day. I put on sweatpants, and she whines for things she knows 100% we're going to say no to. But there are kids (like my daughter, not my son, and like a few other kids I've known) who are more on a hair trigger. With us, at least half the time, the thing my daughter would lose it over would be something simple that we'd have been happy to do for her if she'd let on before she melted down. The Explosive Child gave us some good insight and new things to try.
First off, the acting differently around you vs. at school is nothing to be surprised by. This is very common; not only do children have different senses of what's socially appropriate in these situations (and correctly so!), but your child also feels safer around you, which means she feels more comfortable acting out.
My oldest (also six) has sometimes had similar episodes. I don't feel like it's quite as extreme as you describe, but still, roughly comparable; acting out of character for him, sometimes violently so, and eventually calming down, sometimes with food (sometimes not).
As far as I can tell, it's a combination of issues together. He's too young to fully understand how to handle his emotions; we try to help him work them out when we can, but it's just hard at six years old. Maybe he had a bad day at school, maybe he's frustrated about something, or maybe he really is just 'hangry' as the commenters refer to. But either way, he has strong emotions that he doesn't fully understand how to handle, and acts out as a result. Giving him some space, whether just physically space, or some food, which does a similar thing in giving him time to think (and chew), is what's needed.
As such, my suggestion is when she's acting like that is to give her space. Find somewhere that's "hers" and have her go there for a while (a few minutes, not a long time). Not a "time out" if you've been doing those punitively - rather, this is "time out" in the sense of getting separation (so don't use the word to attach punitive concepts to it). Then, talk to her about her actions - not in an angry way, just in a "how can you handle this better in the future", and make sure she understands that her actions have consequences (not punishments, again, but they hurt other people's feelings). Finally, try to talk to her about what might have set this off. She might not know - she probably does not know - so don't ask directly more than once, but instead talk about her day in general and ask questions that help her process things.
Finally, it sounds to me like your child may benefit from talking to a child therapist, or even the school counselor, as well. It's possible she can learn some techniques for understanding and processing her emotions from someone in addition to you, just to get that other perspective, and in case some of the issues are related to your relationship with her (certainly I have plenty of issues with my parents, I'd be shocked if my kids didn't with me when they're old enough to think of it that way...)