We went on a trip with some friends for 2 days, and there were three 5-year-old girls.

After returning from the trip, my daughter has been pushing her brother 5X more, kicking her mother 5X more (for when she doesn't grant her wish), and mimics an angry face from one of the girls.

The behavior of the 5-year-old kids is somewhat understandable. I guess those 5-year-olds can manage when to turn the switch on and off. But my daughter and another family who had a 3-year-old haven't matured enough. We are both seeing much increased impulsive behavior in our daughters. We're almost certain that this is the reason, because when I told my wife, she, like I, had the same thought and when we saw our other friend she said the exact same thing.

My question is:

  • For future, should we not communicate with parents that have older children (We do see them bi-weekly, but it's just only for 2 hours. The duration of our visits, was never 2 days)? Or if we do, then we have to micromanage everything and let her know immediately this/that action was wrong.
  • Can I undo this behavior? And educate her? If so how?
  • A month has passed and a lot of her behavior has been undone. Though we've seen one particular 50% less. But regardless of that I just sense some maturity in her behavior towards her brother/mother and others. It's such a zigzag behavior... – Honey Jun 6 at 20:25
up vote 79 down vote accepted

For your first question: no, and no. Don't cut off other parents, and don't micromanage things.

For your second question: yes, and yes. You can educate her; that's what her life is at this point after all, a long education session.

Your daughter is going to have many moments like this through her life, where she sees others and picks up behaviors. That's part of socialization. This is a learning experience for her, and you should treat it as such.

Don't focus at all on the fact that she picked it up from the other girls. The why is not important, the what is. Point out to her how it makes other people feel when she does these things. Show some sadness when she kicks you. Show her the other kids' emotions when she does something to another kid.

You can use the experience with the other kids to show her how she feels. Assuming the other kids push her also, you can remind her how she felt when she was pushed, or her toy taken.

But don't micromanage her during these interactions - that's a good way to keep her from learning. Let her have the experiences, and let her learn naturally, while giving her feedback when she acts out separately from this. She won't be a perfect angel at 2 and a half; she'll have troubles like this as she grows. It's entirely possible this experience is totally unrelated to the other girls, in fact; it's very common around this age to start asserting self-identity, and perhaps this was a trigger, but overall it's something that's to be expected.

Your role is to help her learn for herself why this is a problem; and it's much better to learn this at 2.5 than at 12 or 15, when she's much less in your sphere of influence and hurting other children in much more serious ways, emotionally if not physically.

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    This was not the answer I was expecting. Nonetheless very correct. Thank you Joe – Honey May 15 at 12:57
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    Agree. And may I add that you should maintain your consistency. The rules and expectations of your family haven't changed. Children thrive when they know and understand the rules. – Jammin4CO May 15 at 19:22
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    Joe you said, "But don't micromanage her during these interactions". I don't know if this has any research behind it, but my wife and I have always nipped things in the bud on the spot and in front of other parents who are allowing the same behavior in their children. Our oldest is 13 now and so far we feel like that has worked well. I only mention this one thing because your answer seems pretty good and I have specific experience on this one issue. I can't speak to how universal this is, but hope others consider it on a case by case basis. – Adam Heeg May 17 at 15:02
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    @AdamHeeg It depends on what exactly you want to teach. By micromanaging you'll teach them to behave absolutely perfect while you are around ... but you wont know how they'll behave when you're not around. If you sometimes let it play out they might figure out themselves when certain things are not acceptable. I like how Joe shows in his answer that by pointing out the effects the wrong behaviour has in you or other kids (the sadness) you teach them to recognise those things even when you're not around. – Imus May 18 at 11:13
  • @Imus I think you need a bit of both...not too loose not too strict. – Honey May 29 at 14:29

Joe's analysis is spot on. I went through precisely the same thing with (now 4 year old), and continue to do so. The undesirable behavior changes, but the handling remains the same.

I don't think that the five year olds were necessarily responsible for the hitting behavior. From what I have seen hitting seems to be a pretty natural instinct that kids start exhibiting between two and four years of age. The five years olds in question should have learned better by that age -- my four year old lost control and hit me once in the last six months, and realized his error pretty quickly.

Another set of neighbors has walled off their garden and forbidden their kids from playing with the other kids in the neighborhood -- almost certainly thinking this is a way of protecting their kids from bad influences. I condider this a terrible mistake. It's unspeakably awkward for one thing. Their kids go to kindergarten with children who live a few meters away but are forbidden from playing together after kindergarten. So creepy.

I am firmly convinced that whenever my child plays with certain neighborhood kids he comes home imitating behaviors that I find strongly undesirable. I think of as being like a mind-virus that infected my child with its memes. You can try to protect your kid from viruses by raising them in a bubble, but they will grow up with an undeveloped immune system, will be vulnerable, and will probably resent you for giving them a crappy childhood. Alternatively you can give them the support and care they need to recover from their flu's and colds, and they will grow up stronger, healthier, happier, and more resistant to future viruses.

I'm convinced the same holds for learned bad behaviors. If you have the time and attention to spend on your child, youthful mind-viruses are an opportunity to build up your child's character and ability to cope.

At 2.5 the reasoning and conversation skills are more limited, so you'll have to be more creative in your explanations. When I was having a problem with my son hitting me, I found it was part of an overall problem with coping with frustration, not getting what he wanted, and emotional self control. I know many people who made it to adulthood without learning good coping skills, so keep in mind people have to learn these things. If you aren't good at it yourself, work on it at the same time as you help your child learn it.

So how do you deal with it?

My child's hitting phase started at 3, and came together with extreme willfulness, and was usually a part of a general temper-tantrum and thrashing around. I see these happening as a package often enough, that I assume it's your experience as well. If a stern talking to calms her down and gets the desired results -- well done, no more needed. What if she just escalates though?

When my kid was three, he had a phase where he behaved like a real monster. He had learned responses (like "I'm sorry, I won't do it again") which would get him out of a lecture, but then would repeat the behavior almost immediately. He would stubbornly persist in getting what he wanted regardless of our wishes, and it would often escalate into a temper tantrum where he thrashed around wildly, or would hit us. I had friends visiting from abroad and was quite embarassed, as previously he always been so well behaved. I even got impression he was emotionally manipulating me. Scary stuff.

First I had a chat with my wife about how we should handle it, and what we agreed was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Then, one Saturday he did something that required correction, and things escalated when he didn't take my needs seriously. So I took him into our bedroom and said "Okay son, we aren't leaving the room until you calm down and we can talk about this". He went through basically all of the coping mechanisms that he had picked up (learned or instinctual) -- hitting, kicking, screaming, trying to schmooz me, insincere apologies. Honestly it sometimes felt like my son had become a little devil.

Side note: I found the insincere apologies really hard to cope with. He'd calm down enough to get out what could pass as a sincere apology -- how could I tell I'd gotten through to him? In the end I went with: "okay, I'm glad you see my point. Now we can go downstairs as soon as we can sit here calmly for five minutes."

I was in that room with him for close to 3 hours before he finally got to the point that he could just be calm and carry on. The next weekend a similar event occurred, but was resolved in less than an hour. By the time a month had passed violent outbursts were more or less a thing of the past. Now violence has essentially disappeared from our relationship.

You can also use consequences to discourage undesired behavior. You can think of the above as a negative consequence for the child, and is in that they aren't getting whatever it is that they were originally after... but I think of it as more of an intervention in coping with stress and frustration. When using consequences please consider the following:

  1. Never promise a consequence you will not 100% deliver on. So never say stuff like "if you don't stop X, we're going home RIGHT NOW", unless you are completely prepared to go home right now.
  2. Repetition is key. Brains are neural networks, and repetition carves out paths that then become the most easily accessible ones. So frequent consequences that impact the child more than they impact you are best. You can't substitute intensity for frequency, it isn't effective.

Good luck!

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    Can I say, "repetition carves out paths that then become the most easily accessible ones" and "You can't substitute intensity for frequency, it isn't effective." are really powerful realisations, and apply well beyond the scope of this question. – Vix May 16 at 9:11
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    @Vix - I've found that "repetition carves out paths that then become the most easily accessible ones" :) – Nigel Touch May 16 at 20:04

First, you can most certainly help your child unlearn this behavior. Kids learn behaviors from other people. School mates, cousins, friends, other adults, TV characters, etc. will all be places your child will learn both good and bad behaviors. It's your job as a parent to help them turn good behaviors into character traits and reject poor behavior. This isn't any different.

You suggested possibly removing all contact with the elder children to stop this. It might work, but it might be more effort than it is worth. You could try to cut out all contact with anybody who ever displays poor behavior but that seems a bit extreme (and unrealistic). That's not to say that restricting contact to the worst offenders is a bad idea. Remember that cutting off contact has a cost (lost friends and relationships, having to deal with the crying and protests, etc). It's up to you to determine if the ill effects of socializing with poorly behaved children is worth that cost.

As far as undoing the behavior, treat it the same way you would any other poor behavior. Be consistent in telling your child that the behavior isn't acceptable, apply whatever punishment / consequences you feel are appropriate, etc. Rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat ... Eventually, your child will get it. You are a much greater and more constant influence in your child's life than a one time encounter with another kid.

give her the friends you want her to have. Have you read "The Nurture Assumption"? Addresses various hypothesis for question: what influences the development of a child. Looked at many hypothesis: is it the parent, or is it the school, or perhaps birth order? The one compelling hypothesis is that it's the group that the kids are socialized into.

Most of the above answers suggest talking the kid out of the behavior, or some sort of punishment for it basically. What the "Nurture Assumption" shows is that this will teach your kid to act only that way with you, the parent. Around their peers at school, they are going to continue to behave the same way, to fit in.

  • I upvoted because it's a worthy distinct perspective. But I somewhat disagree, children know stealing and punching others in the face is bad. Even the children from the ghetto's know that. They do such activities hidden because in their very own mind (and the public) they know it's wrong. I mean you don't really have to lecture a child that punching your brother in the face is bad...they know it. Depending on their age, they know more or less. And the more a child knows something is bad...the less likely they are to do it. Hence this is where parents can guide their children. – Honey May 17 at 8:55
  • Obviously children are beings with free-will so they can and will do whatever they please. Sometimes the punishments are effective, because 3-4 or 7-8 years later the child appreciates them. Years later I've appreciated many of the limitations/punishments my parents have done for me. My point is: while it's obviously better if they don't do it ever, it's impossible. If they can understand why it's wrong...then my mission as the parent is somewhat done as ultimately I can't micromanage their life – Honey May 17 at 8:56
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    While I agree with the opening statement to "give her the friends you want her to have," I disagree with the statement that this will "teach your kid to act only that way with you, the parent." If you are consistent with your teaching and expectations AND if you model them yourselves (this is key), the odds are that the children will act in the expected way among their peers, as well as with their parents. Additionally, they will seek out peers who model that behavior themselves. I.e., they will not socialize to the group, but rather they will select a group with similar values. – Doug R. May 17 at 14:51

I think that many of the other comments have the answer about 90% covered. However, one point doesn't appear to be addressed in any of them: Young children can be very motivated by praise.

While I'm not suggesting that the improper behavior be ignored, also be certain to praise your daughter when she models the appropriate behavior. If she gets upset and handles it appropriately, praise her for it. It may take a little time, but this does influence behavior. Additionally, if she does get upset and acts inappropriately, state the appropriate behavior immediately: "Don't hit mommy/daddy/brother. Use words!"

Anecdotally, when our oldest son was about this age, he would bite when he was angry or frustrated. Nothing seemed to work. One day, I decided to try self-affirmation. "Tommy," I said. "Say, 'No bite! Use words!'" He did. I had him repeat this ten or twelve times. When he started to balk, I stopped; I didn't force the issue.

My wife and I continued this exercise with him periodically throughout the day over the next several days. We also did this immediately when we observed him biting.

This worked for us. A few days later, his daycare provider reported to us that he went to bite another child, then stopped and shook his head, saying: "No bite! Use words!"

That was the end of the biting.

As for the angry face...if you figure out what to do about that, please share it; our youngest is 18, and we still get that (or at least, eye-rolling, its teenaged equivalent).

While it is certainly not acceptable, it is less serious than the hitting and kicking. Don't react negatively to it (at least, at this age), but also don't give in to it. If the children she learned this behavior from were rewarded for it by getting their way, then this may be all that it takes to cure it in your daughter. When my boys were younger, I had two responses to them when they engaged in this type of behavior. They were, "We don't negotiate with terrorists in this family," and, "Did I give you what you wanted the last time you did that?" As I said, my youngest is now 18, and I still have to trot those out now and then.

Again, anecdotally, if your daughter is literal-minded, which many children that age are, don't tell her that her face will freeze that way if she's not careful; she's likely to believe you. When my youngest was about this age, he took off running down the hall after Grandma gave him a bath. It was the middle of winter, and she told him that he'd freeze his belly off if he wasn't careful. He was terrified.

This answer will focus on stopping behaviors you don't want. Joe's answer is spot on for the behaviors you describe, but what if the behaviors were more dangerous or unacceptable? For example instead of "learning to be rowdier," they learned to try to stab small animals or learned to say a phrase that may get them into serious trouble.

For example, my son learned to brandish a "weapon" and yell "I'll f****** kill you" from one of the kids at school.

So the first step is to decide if it's a behavior that you need to stop, or if it's one that is undesirable, but not "dangerous". If it's dangerous or for some reason, you just can't accept the behavior then you have something you can do. If you can live with it for a while then Joe's answer may be the way to go.

Anyway, let's assume you have a learned behavior that you must change because it's not ok on some level.

  1. Remove the tool. In my case, the "weapon" should be removed (in this case we are talking about legos fashioned into a gun.). In your case, it's the mom or sibling. If it takes a physical thing to misbehave then remove that thing (it could be a person).

  2. State why the tool is being removed. In my case, I said something like "That is not how we are supposed to play with Legos, if you can't play with them correctly, then you don't get to play with them." For your situation (kicking Mom), you may want to try leaving her in the room for a short time, alone (make sure that's safe) and say "I don't like when people kick me. I am not going to choose to be around people that kick me." In your case, this could be a good time to kind of demonstrate how to react when someone hits you. You (or mom) leave the area.

At this point you have probably stopped the behavior, but you need to go a bit further

  1. Introduce a proper behavior. Afte things have calmed down (for a child that young it may be mere moments), demonstrate a proper behavior. In my example, I played Legos with my son for a while and discussed why we don't say not-nice things. For your example, you could demonstrate a more acceptable behavior to deal with anger, there are several books that deal with that issue that could be good to read to a child that age.

  2. Reward proper behavior, and be quick to ack if the "bad" behavior resurfaces. It will from time to time. But being quick to act is important.

As to avoiding the parents and kids that started all this

You have to decide if the behavior was that bad. If it was then there is nothing wrong with cutting off contact with that child and parents. However, usually, it's not worth it. In my example, if one kid had not taught my son that another one would have. It's probably from a movie or some nonsense that they were not old enough to see, and while serious, it's not serious enough to break all contact.

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