Q. I am at a loss for how to parent my 5 yo daughter. She does whatever she wants, including things that are dangerous or destructive, even when she knows and has agreed to the rules. This morning we were all in the living room and she left to go to the bathroom. After a little while I went to see what she was doing and smelled a very strong odor. I asked her what it was, and she said bug spray. She had found a can of bug spray and sprayed the entire thing over every surface of the bathroom. She has also taken pens, etc. and written on anything and everything including walls and furniture. She’s taken scissors and cut things. She’s dumped out entire packages of food to make her own creations. She’s squeezed out entire tubes of toothpaste. She says she knows she shouldn’t do these things but does them because she just wants to. Nothing has ended in a lasting solution. I’m not handling things well. I yelled a lot this morning. Right now she is being supervised 100% of the time. I don’t like exerting that level of control and I don’t think it’s really healthy for her or me, but I don’t know what else to do.
A. You have a very curious, impulsive, bright little girl on your hands! A tough one to raise but if given the right support, encouragement and boundaries, extraordinary potential. The good news is that she is not covering up what she has done, which means she doesn’t get (yet) that there is anything wrong with doing what she’s doing—she just wants to. She says she knows but what she wants in the moment is stronger—perfectly appropriate for an inquisitive 5 year old. And you want it to stay this way. She is not wrong—just a pain for you.
Shift your perspective:
How you perceive what she is doing will make all the difference in her well-being. If you see her behavior as bad because she should know she shouldn’t do it, you will be going down the wrong path. When you see her as bad, that’s how she sees herself. It is so important to keep your mindset focused on the fact that there is nothing wrong with her curiosity, nothing wrong with her. Anything you see as dangerous or destructive is how you see it. She sees it as fun. She is not purposefully being destructive. There is no malicious intent to her behavior. It is essential that you hold that perspective.
She is however, certainly behaving in ways that frustrate the hell out of you or anyone caring for her. You will be frustrated and annoyed—no question. What you don’t want is for that frustration to transform into anger and judgment so that you are controlling and threatening.
Your worry, your frustration, your impatience is your problem, not hers. When you get mad at her or respond punitively, you are asking a child who is not capable yet of understanding to take care of your problem. You are the one having the problem, she’s just doing her thing. Do the best you can to minimize your problem and learn to see what she is doing as inquisitive, not destructive. That reframing alone can make a huge difference for you.
What to do:
• You need some serious child-proofing. Keep as much out of her reach, especially dangerous items as absolutely possible and do not expect her to follow rules. Give them, just don’t expect her to see something highly tempting and be able to control that temptation because of a rule. She will get there but sooner IF you understand her and do not blame her for her curiosity and impulsivity. She’s fine. You are the one who needs the support. She must be exhausting!
• Definitely supervise her a good deal of the time. You don’t have to be looking over her shoulder every minute, but you of course do need to stop her from damaging things. As annoying as that will be, it is important that you do not react in anger. Supervision is fine as long as the intention is to keep her from doing anything dangerous as opposed to shaming her for not knowing better. If she’s going for something she shouldn’t, tell her that is not okay as opposed to you can’t do that. Perhaps explain why but limit your talking. As often as possible, give her something she can explore. “Not this, but you can do this.” Choices can work wonders.
• Provide opportunities to redirect her impulses. Simply trying to get her to bottle up her impulses and curiosity will backfire. Make sure she has expressive outlets, perhaps some things she can take apart in a designated area that is for her. Put large pieces of paper on the walls that she can mark or color on. Give her lots of paper and appropriate scissors so she can cut all she wants. Let her know that if she wants to try something she can come to you and you will find a way, i.e. take the bug spray outside to spray. Teach her how to use real scissors but keep them under lock and key to be used when she asks and when you can supervise.
Whatever she learns is forbidden, she may sneak or hoard. When you give her permission to do what she wants, then you can put your parameters around it with more likelihood of cooperation.