How Should I Handle My Child’s Violent Outbursts Toward Her Parents?

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My six-year old daughter behaves violently toward us when she is at home with family but not when she is outside of our home among strangers.

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Cairo, Egypt. She added that at home, her daughter behaves aggressively and violently. At times she will “hit me or her father.” But “when she’s with strangers outside the home, she behaves like a little princess.”

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom):  This is an interesting situation that is not as uncommon as we might think. We generally say in psychology that if the child behaves outside the home better than she does inside the home it isn’t quite as serious of problem as a child who behaves poorly both inside the home and outside the home.

So perhaps that’s a positive sign, but I think the parents should look at what’s going on in the home that allows the child to be so aggressive and violent. I don’t feel like I know enough about what’s going on in the home to address that.

MOLLY: The Mom also stated that she hasn’t “deprived her daughter of anything, she has the best clothes…” Maybe what the Mom needs to do is have a conversation with the daughter?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think she should have some conversations with her daughter, several of them because this has been happening for a long time. I don’t think the issue is that she’s deprived of things. There’s some other kind of issue going on. So the Mom and Dad probably also have to think carefully about what’s happening at home.

MOLLY: What exactly would they say to the child when they sit down with her?

DR. RUTHERFORD:  When they sit down with her to talk about this, they should start with, “You know, we notice that you act very differently toward us when you’re outside of our home with other people than when you’re inside of our home just with us. What do you think that’s about?”

She’s six years old; she might be able to tell them. If she can’t, they should bring up some suggestions and see how she responds to them.

MOLLY: What kinds of suggestions? How would you even guess?

DR. RUTHERFORD: They might ask a question like, “Are you mad at mommy and daddy?” or  “What is it that makes you so angry with us at home?”

MOLLY: And start the conversation there.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, she may be so used to being indulged materially that she might feel like she should have full reign in the household. It’s hard for us to know because we don’t have enough information.

Regardless of what she gives as reasons for her behavior, it’s obvious that her behavior toward her parents is unacceptable and something has to change. She’s only six, so now is a good time to put a stop to unacceptable behavior by using rewards and consequences to show her what type of behavior is expected.

By six, she is old enough to work toward a goal, like, say, she gets a sticker every day that she does not have a violent outburst and once she gets seven stickers she can redeem them for a trip to the bookstore for a new book. I’m always a big fan of sticker charts to help children adjust behaviors.

As for consequences, she should be physically removed from the group during a violent outburst and put in a time out for 10 minutes or longer if she is still worked up and out of control after that time. She needs to learn that if she feels like she is going out of control, she needs to remove herself from other people until she calms down.

Using Positive Incentives to Change Kids’ Behavior

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I feel like I’m always saying “No,” and becoming such a nag. Aren’t there other ways of changing behavior?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Boston. I think one thing that you suggested for us that’s been helpful for the tantrums was the sticker chart.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It could be a variety of things that you put on there.

MOLLY: We put a list that includes please and thank you, no tantrums, good table manners… and it’s all positive reinforcement. So every time my daughter does it –or rather doesn’t do it (in other words, refrains from having a tantrum..)–  she gets to put a sticker on the chart. Then after 5 stickers accumulate for the same thing, she gets to go to the bookstore and pick out a little paperback book.

MOM: I think it works extraordinary well with kids. Not so well with grown ups, but it works really well with kids.

MOLLY: At what age do you think you can start a sticker chart?

MOM: Well, I don’t know exactly, but I would say in the threes. You put the chart at eye level so the child can see it, and you explain what you’re doing very clearly. Then you have the child put the stickers on it. The first time around it will all be brand new to a kid, but usually they catch on pretty rapidly.

MOLLY: I like our bookstore reward because it’s not about toys.

MOM: Right, you’re not going to promise the child a big thing, just a little treat.

MOLLY: And the whole bookstore thing is an adventure for kids.

MOM: So it’s a win-win for everyone.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success changing your child’s behavior using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.