Is it still reasonable for your kid to freak out now and then? It's common for 5- and 6-year-olds to have trouble transitioning into a "big kid," so don't be alarmed if he occasionally reacts with "little kid" behavior. We'll show you how to handle the situation.
For a preschooler, it's natural to suddenly burst into tears. But by the time my son turned 5, I wondered: Is he too old for that behavior? Indeed, 5- and 6-year-olds are expected to start bridging the gap between "little kid" and "big kid." But the transition isn't always easy -- and it's not always clear which behaviors are still appropriate and which aren't. "It's a fallacy that once a child develops a skill, he should be able to demonstrate it all the time," says Nathan Blum, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "When he's feeling stressed, hungry, or even tired, he might resort to behavior that he's developmentally old enough to have outgrown." Experts explain what to expect at this age.
Is my child too old to have frequent meltdowns?
Short answer: yes
If your kid cries sometimes when she's sad, that's normal. But if she throws a fit whenever she doesn't get her way (say, when you refuse to buy a toy she sees while you're shopping together), turning on the waterworks has likely helped her get what she wants in the past so she's repeating the action. The first step toward discouraging this behavior is to not give in to your child's tears. Instead, ask questions like, "Can you think of a reason why I wouldn't want to buy that for you today?" Try to lead her toward a more productive alternative to crying, such as putting the item on her birthday wish list, suggests Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Thinking Parent, Thinking Child and professor emeritus of psychology at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.
Once kids this age realize that their antics aren't effective and become accustomed to finding different strategies, their meltdowns usually stop (or happen less frequently). One caveat: If your child regularly has outbursts that are so intense she can't calm down and are accompanied by other behaviors, such as hitting, mention it to her pediatrician.
Is my child too old to have difficulty listening to reason?
Short answer: no
Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously irrational beings. While most 5- and 6-year-olds are better at understanding concrete examples of cause and effect (at the crux of most logical arguments), they may still have trouble with abstract concepts, such as the fact that invisible germs can make them sick, explains Dr. Blum. For example, when Janine Flannery, of Westfield, New Jersey, told her 6-year-old son they had to go straight home after school that day because a cable guy was waiting at their house, he had a hard time adjusting to the change in plans. "I tried to explain, but he just screamed that we always go to the playground on Tuesdays," says Flannery. If your child freaks out when you spring disappointing news on him, tell him the reason once, but then do what you need to do--get him into the car, for instance -- and say that you'll talk about it more later, Dr. Blum advises. Then follow through when everyone is calm. Keep in mind that your child's ability to reason will continue to develop along with his emotional maturity, which in turn will help him listen to explanations in the heat of the moment.
Is my child too old to refuse to share?
Short answer: yes
Any kid can have an off day (thanks to a poor night's sleep, for instance), but your child usually should share and take turns by now. If she's a toy hog, rehearse playdates and be sure to model good sharing at home, advises Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. When a friend visits, allow your child to put away a few special toys beforehand and encourage opportunities for cooperative play, like building a fort or working on a puzzle together.
If a conflict arises anyway, ask your child how she thinks her friend felt when she grabbed away a toy, and ask both children whether they can think of a way to solve the problem, since they're more likely to follow through with an idea that's theirs. You can always put a toy in "time-out" if they can't reach an agreement themselves, or use a timer, giving each kid equal time to play with it. Just as important is to point out when your child does share willingly. Saying, "Did you see Sophie's smile when you let her use your animal figures? You guys really had a good time playing zoo together," increases the likelihood that your child will repeat the behavior next time -- and recognize the value of sharing, says Dr. Borba.
Is my child too old to wet the bed?
Short answer: no
Though he has probably been potty trained for about two years, staying dry at night is a different developmental milestone that some kids don't reach until several years later. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 20 percent of 5-year-olds experience bedwetting -- and most will outgrow it on their own. While medications and bedwetting alarms exist, Dr. Blum doesn't recommend considering them until a child is 7 or 8. Until then, focus on management rather than treatment. Have your child avoid liquids for several hours before bedtime and use the bathroom right before lights-out. Then wake him an hour or two later to use the toilet one more time. Protect his mattress with a waterproof cover and have him wear training pants at night if he doesn't object. Make sure he knows that bedwetting is normal at his age and won't last forever. If, however, your child has been dry at night for six months or longer and suddenly starts wetting the bed again, he should be evaluated by his doctor, since a medical problem could be to blame.
Is my child too old to be lacking table manners?
Short answer: It depends.
Children's fine motor skills and activity levels vary greatly at this age -- and where your kid is on those spectrums affects her ability to sit through a meal or cut her chicken with a knife and fork. Since most table manners are skills that a child masters rather than developmental behaviors, a lot depends on your priorities. "Habits are best learned one at a time," Dr. Borba explains, so if you consider it crucial that your child say "please" and "thank you" without being reminded, then focus on that, and let other things (say, using hands instead of utensils) slide until they become automatic.
Plus, kids are most likely to stick with habits if you make the learning process enjoyable, says Dr. Borba. For example, 5- and 6-year-olds love jingles, so try making one up for whatever etiquette you're trying to instill, such as "Snap, snap, snap, put your napkin on your lap." Finding ways to get your child involved (by setting out napkins for a meal, for instance, and including her in the conversation) can help -- just try to stay relaxed yourself. "Keep meals fun and inviting, and she'll want to be part of them," says Dr. Borba.
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Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Parents magazine.