How do we parent a 5-year-old who won’t listen?


AT: I love 5-year-olds. They aren’t messing around; they’re in charge of their bodies and (some) of their thoughts, and they’ll let you know the score. They worked hard as 4-year-olds to secure their independence, and now they’re going to revel in it — if you let them.

Three- and 4-year-olds can be tyrannical, but 5-year-olds often feel as if they’re settling into themselves. You will see frequent empathy, consideration and patience at this age (and some tantrums from the old days, too), and their ability to get along with others is growing. Five is a great age.

As a parent coach, I frequently see parents using the same techniques and routines with their children that worked a year or six months ago, but they haven’t realized their children have matured. What once was comforting and needed is now stifling and prescriptive, and this quick shift can lead to power struggles and defiance. And before you think I’m blaming you for this dynamic, think again. I have yet to meet a parent who hasn’t turned around and realized their child has matured and needs something different.

You are moving into a different developmental stage with your daughter, so where should you begin? Your letter contains the best clue: “I feel as if we’re ordering her around, and I would probably ignore me, too.” Check and check. Rather than trying yet another strategy to get your daughter to do your bidding, let’s look at what isn’t working (and what’s making your life more miserable). As I have already mentioned, your daughter is almost in full possession of her body, so when you boss her around, that flies in the face of what she is developmentally trying to accomplish in her life: some independence.

When she feels bossed around, she is going to do what a 5-year-old should do: the opposite. First, she will argue with you, letting you know she is her own person and she doesn’t appreciate the commands and demands. Next, she will completely ignore you. It is important to remember that she isn’t trying to manipulate you.

People don’t like to be bossed around, and she is letting you know, in her 5-year-old way, that she doesn’t like it.

It can be challenging to let go of the commanding and demanding, so let’s pivot to what motivates kids this age: They want their voices to be heard and respected, and they want choices and encouragement, even when failure is imminent.

The most efficient tool for this is a family meeting. For a couple of meetings, focus on sharing your day and chatting, then end with a treat. Seriously: Keep it simple and sweet. When it seems as if the meetings are running well, you can mention something such as: “I’ve noticed the morning routine is going a little slowly, and I bet we can make a better schedule together. What are some things we could do in the morning that would make it more fun?”

When your daughter starts giving you ideas, write them down, even if they’re ridiculous or impossible. Listening to her, giving her strong eye contact and smiling are powerful ways to connect with your daughter, and doing so will serve as a great jumping-off point for forming a new schedule.

After creating ideas, take pictures of your daughter getting ready for school, glue them to a poster board and hang it up at her eye level. (Peek into any successful preschool teacher’s room, and you will see similar systems.) Make a habit of referring to the schedule as “Sarah’s schedule” to give her ownership, and give it time to work. There will be bad days, but keep your eyes on the horizon. Remember: The chart is not what will make your mornings more successful; it’s the combination of your willingness to stop bossing her around and the cultivation of a more fun, trusting and positive relationship with your daughter. Commands and demands equal power struggles. How can you connect with her so that she will want to be good for you?

With time, patience and a good sense of humor, you will get there. Good luck!

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