5-year-old Tantrums

Dear Faith,  My 5yo has enormous tantrums–kicking, hitting, even biting.  We went through a phase of this at 3.5 when her younger brother came, but we thought it was solved.  Now we don’t see any external factors.  Her father wants to move to more punishment-based discipline.  I don’t necessarily agree, but certainly need to find something that will help her, and us all. 

Dear Mama,

Thanks so much for reaching out, that sounds so frustrating for everyone!  Clearly something needs to change…but what? Of course I don’t know you or your daughter, but I have worked with many families, and have some suggestions that may help shift things around and change the dynamic.

Behaviors Are A Message

When young children are throwing consistent tantrums, this is often their only way of telling us that something in their life is out of balance.  These regular tantrums might be a call for boundaries (as your husband is suggesting), but it could also be a call for connection, in which case punishments are likely to make the behavior worse, not better.  And it could also be a message that there’s too much chaos or uncertainty in her life (a call for consistency), or simply too much stimulation or too many transitions (a call to slow down).  Could your daughter be feeling out of balance in one of these ways?  How can you tell what she needs? Of course it would be wonderful if you could just ask her what she needs, but even adults aren’t that great at that type of introspection; young children even less so.  

In my years of work with children and with families, I’ve come up with a way of investigating what might be needed for children to be able to calm down, and get back in balance.  I go into it in much greater detail in my book, Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love, and I’m happy to share it with you here, too.  

Step 1: Implement a “Pouring In the Love” Campaign

For one week, just POUR love into your little girl. Make her favorite things for meals, and let her know that you made them with her in mind.  Carve out time for extra snuggles, extra story times, playing games that you know she loves, inviting her into your tasks to be your special helper, giving her lots of eye contact and smiles and hugs and telling her how much you love her and how glad you are that she’s your daughter.  

Now, I’m well aware that it can feel very challenging to pour love and affection into your daughter when she’s acting so unloveable.  When she is hurting you and others you care about, the last thing you feel like is giggling with her or telling her how great she is.  But remember, it’s not fair to children to think, even unconsciously, “If she were only a kinder child, I could be a better parent.”  We need to be the ones to instigate the changes in our relationships.  And the Pouring In the Love Campaign is the first step in figuring out what she needs, so that she can truly be her best self.  

Now, this isn’t to say that you don’t correct her behavior when needed.  But do it with a MUCH lighter touch: “Oops!  You forgot!  Here, let me help you.”  When you see her start to get that “look in her eye,” stop whatever you’re doing and do something that you know she’ll love, instead.  Read a book together, do a craft, eat a snack, play chase-and-tickle, invite her to help you get lunch together but then be fun and silly while you do.  If those things don’t head it off at the pass, and things fall apart, don’t get mad, get sad. And curious.  And compassionate, if possible.  For THIS WEEK, these are not moments to teach her, they are moments for you to try and see things from her perspective.  Not with lots of questions, just through your heart.  How hard it must be for her to be so out of control.

Step 2: Analyze the Results

Over the course of this week-long Pouring In the Love Campaign, one of three things is likely to happen: 

A Call for Connection

The first possibility is that much of her defiant behavior just melts away, and her whole being seems to breathe a huge sigh of relief.  If this happens, then it’s likely that her behavior was a call for connection.  How sad that we human beings tend to ask for connection in ways that push people away from us!  In this case, continue Pouring In the Love for one more week, then gradually let it ramp down until you reach a new equilibrium where you’re not completely over the top, but she still feels cherished and special.  This might happen at a point that still feels a little exhausting for you.  In this case, sit down with your team (husband, babysitter, etc.) and come up with a plan to help your little girl get what she needs.  Maybe some divide-and-conquer time where her brother is with another adult so that you can spend time just with her?  Or ask your babysitter to get dinner started, so that you can do half an hour of simply connecting before you need to jump in to household tasks?  Or order dinner in a couple of nights per week?  What could help YOU, so that you have more to give this little girl who needs more connection than feels easy and natural for you?  If you can figure this out, you can create a new normal where everyone’s needs are getting met.

A Call for Boundaries

The second possibility is that over the course of your Pouring In the Love Campaign, her defiance seems to get even worse.  Her tantrums increase, she’s hurting people even more, she’s increasingly defiant and unreasonable.  If that happens, then she’s likely putting out a call for boundaries.  If this happens, you don’t want to drop the Love.  Instead, you want to figure out how you can create those boundaries that she needs in ways that are kind and compassionate, and that strengthen your relationship. This can feel like a real struggle, and I highly suggest that you read my book, which is ALL about maintaining high levels of warmth while setting and maintaining boundaries. I’m also available for coaching calls, which you can book through my website.

More Complicated Messages

The third possibility is that things get a little bit better, but then they seem to just fizzle out again by the end of the week.  If that happens, the first thing to do is to look at your own actions.  Are you ACTUALLY pouring in the love, or are you too busy, tired, or resentful to implement the campaign effectively?  

Remember, it’s just for one week.  If you feel too drained to do it, it MAY be that she’s actually calling for connection, but you don’t have enough to give. If it’s hard for you to connect with her in general, that may be the heart of the issue and we can approach that head-on. However, if you’re just too busy or too tired, it could also be that she’s sending out a call for consistency, or a call to slow down. It’s time to do some journaling and introspection, or sit down and have a serious talk with your mom, or your husband, or your best friend.

  • Maybe you grew up with lots of chaos in your home and no matter how hard you try, it’s a real challenge to be calm and consistent for your daughter?
  • Maybe your daughter needs a long time to settle in to each new activity, and right when she finally settles in, it’s time to do something else?
  • Perhaps you love novelty and have been over-scheduling her because it’s what YOU would love to do!  Even if each activity and each caregiver is wonderful, some children just need less of everything, so that they can truly have time to dive deeply into each activity that they do. Does this sound like your daughter?  What do you think she needs?

Look at your daughter from a place of warm objectivity: what does this little being need, in order to be able to thrive? 

Step 3: Make Some Changes

If there are changes that you are willing and able to make in order to help give her what she needs, please go ahead and make these changes.  But also remember that YOU don’t have to do everything.  If you struggle with consistency and your daughter is telling you (through her behavior) that she needs more of it, then maybe what she needs is to go from 2 mornings of kindergarten each week to 5 full days, so that she can truly settle in.  Kindergarten teachers are often able to be warm, calm, and consistent in ways that are just not possible at home in a family (believe me, I was a preschool teacher for many years before becoming a mom of two; I know this to be true!).  Your job is to make sure that your children get what they need for their healthy development; it makes sense that some of that will be done by you, and some by others that you choose.

I hope that this can help give you a plan to get started, and some tools to start to uncover what your daughter might need, and how you can set her up for success.  If you and your husband can do this together as a team, that’s ideal, but you can also do it on your own with great effectiveness.  I am also happy to be here as a resource for you. I would love to get an email from you to let me know how things go, and I am happy to answer any clarifying questions you have before you get started.  If you have just one or two questions I can send out another email, or if you have lots of questions, or would benefit from more direct support as you go through your investigation process, then don’t hesitate to book a call.  Remember, this little girl chose you to be her mother, and you absolutely have what it takes to help her become her best self.

Sending warm, nurturing thoughts your way,


  1. Mrs. D. says

    Thank you for your post and book!
    I have a question. When you are going through a family crisis, and you legitimately don’t have strength for pouring in the love, what do you do then?
    For example, I recently gave birth to a preemie baby and I am also recovering from a C section. My 5 and 2 year olds are definitely sending out those calls for love and consistency.
    Thank you!

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