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.