Why Won't My Daughter Behave?

I have a five-year-old daughter who is driving me crazy, she is a very smart girl. I can't seem to get her to behave. She is really acting up. For instance she pours out the sugar and plays in the things in the bathroom, things that she knows better then to play with. She tears up her brothers' things, she sneaks into her father's office, which she knows is not allowed. I have spanked her, sat her in time out, grounded her and cut out her allowance. What else can I do???? Please help me I am at my wit's end!!!!


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your daughter is risking significant rejection from you in order to express a deeper need coming from inside. She is getting your attention in the only way she can! Her persistence in the face of your repeated discipline means that these misbehaviors have an emotional meaning for her that is calling out to be understood. Her behavior points to three possibilities, and it is likely a combination of any or all of these that is causing her to continue to disobey you.

Your child may be expressing a need for a more connected relationship with her father that has not developed. Between the ages of 3-5 years, children develop strong affiliations with peers and with the opposite sexed parent. "Sneaking into her Dad's office" may be a sign that she is trying to get close to him. If she has not been able to develop the closeness with Daddy she craves, it could become pressing at this time, causing her to disobey in this way, particularly if her brother were getting his connection with you (the opposite sexed parent) but she was not getting this from Dad. This could leave her feeling the odd-girl-out in the family.

An unfulfilled need for closeness with Dad could exaggerate her feelings of jealousy of any attention her brother receives from you at this time. This could be the meaning of her "tearing up his things". Conflict with you could be an expression of pushing you away, and wanting Daddy close. It is natural at this age that children have a "love affair" with the opposite sexed parent. Sometimes, this can be expressed through conflict with the same sexed parent.

The emotional meaning of playing with things "she knows better than to play with" translates as something she is trying to tell you but does not have words to express. So she uses her behavior. She is not trying to be "bad" but she may be having feelings she thinks are "bad". Continued punishment in the face of resistance can leave her feeling that she is indeed "naughty". This can become a self-fulfilling message that causes her to identify with misbehaving in order to express unhappy or unpopular feelings. It may also undermine her self-esteem and runs the risk of failing to recognize the deeper meaning of her behavior. Instead of escalating your discipline, begin to wonder what her behavior is trying to tell you. (I know, and I sympathize. We mothers are asked to decipher hieroglyphics on top of everything else!) However it is our job to try to understand our children rather than to simply make them behave.

Children of this age also need peer relationships and activities that offer structure to satisfy their growing curiosity about the world. She will soon be entering (age 6) a phase of "industry", of wanting to be able to be productive. Play projects that teach skills, such as cooking, drawing, dancing that in some way allow a child to produce something they can be proud of is important at this time. Without structured activity, this heightened energy can become a bubbling force that wreaks havoc in lieu of creativity.

If she has not developed friendships, help her find friends to play with and identify interests she can pursue at this age through structured activities or classes for kids. Some of her behavior may be linked to boredom! Particularly if she is a very bright child, she may need you to help her structure her play time so that she is satisfying her curiosity and developing supportive relationships with other teachers and peers who spark and maintain her interest.

Start by spending some quality mother-daughter time with her. But be sure it is just the two of you. Find activities she enjoys. Read a book at the library, get an ice cream cone, or go to a movie she would find entertaining. Let her know she is special to you and get to know more about her. She is growing and changing. The more you know about her, the easier it will be to help her develop into the special person that she is!

Consider alternating special time with Dad one day and you the next. Keep in mind that at this age, she may be hungry for Daddy's attention, and to be his "special" little girl. She may need to know that Daddy knows her interests, likes and dislikes. And that she is important to him. Fathers are critical to a daughter's self esteem and developing confidence about herself in the world. Especially if he is gone all day, he represents the working world to her. His attention means that she has a link to this world and will be likely to be more confident in it as an adult.

It may not be discipline that is needed, but a redirection of her attention towards activities that are more challenging to her age. Her activities show that she is a very curious little girl with a lot of energy. Be sure to reflect these positive qualities to her while directing her to more productive play. She may have too much time on her hands with too little structure. Connecting up with other children in her community through play groups, the YWCA or other summer day camps that offer her a place to learn and explore with supervision and teaching may be part of what will help her positively express herself.

And remember that her needs may bring up questions or feelings about your own childhood. What kind of attention did you receive from your mother? Your father? Did you feel special? Did anyone help you to structure your time and activities so that your talents could be recognized and developed? Talk with your husband. Seek his support and comfort in finding the answer to the riddle her behavior currently presents. If her behavior continues to confound you, seek a consultation with a child psychologist for help with the "hieroglyphics".

Parenting is not an easy path. And it can cause us to look deeper into ourselves than we had ever bargained for! But it can be a rewarding one if you seek the comfort of your partner in learning and growing together. After all, it's not like you've ever done this before!

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