Why Age 5, Not 2 or 3 is the Hardest Age to Parent

Why Age 5, Not 2 or 3 is the Hardest Age to Parent

“Oh, the terrible twos. That’s a hard year!”

“Yea, but just wait until three! Or four! Those are worse!” 

When you are a first-time parent and your oldest starts to hit those super fun years of temper tantrums and exhausting behaviors, you often hear those same sentiments. The “terrible twos” have that name for a reason, right? Before you know it, you’re out of the “terrible twos,” and maybe even the wretched preschool years. Your child is getting ready for kindergarten and you breathe a sigh of relief because it’s supposed to get easier from now on…right?


Age five is a developmental milestone for children and also a challenge for parents. Parents often begin to see their children as more mature, more capable, and more apt to accept responsibility. And in some instances that is true. However, most five-year-olds can mentally process information such as rules, expectations, and following directions, but their ability to control their behavior is not always quite there yet. This puts them in a Freaky Friday sort of situation- where they are a 5-year-old stuck in a 4-year-old’s body.

Dr. Nichole M. Beakley, a child psychologist, states that at around age 5 children are going through some major changes that are sometimes difficult for them to express, leading to frustration for their parents. With all their new-found skills like increased language, better fine and gross motor skills, and learning how to manipulate the world around them, your five year old suddenly goes from innocent preschool to, as Dr. Beakley puts it “often slower-moving, stubborn, wildly opinionated mini-adults that are well aware that you just drove past McDonalds – and the lights on and cars in the parking lot meant NO IT WAS NOT CLOSED.”

An increase in skill and independence can lead both parents and the child to misdirection. In one point, a parent sees their 5-year-old as completely capable of doing certain activities- whether that be helping a sibling or following multi-step directions- they are also still a child who has difficulty expressing big emotions. Dr. Beakley states that “while, yes, these little “mini-adults” have a number of skills – it is important to remember that children have a great deal of learning left to do. We see an emergence of skill without real mastery of it…that mastery comes with time and consistency.”

So what can you do to help make the transition from preschool behavior to more acceptable, “older child” behavior? “Be consistent and concrete,” says Dr. Beakley. “Keep things simple in your house – for instance, in our house we must be safe, responsible, and respectful. So rather than a laundry list of rules and regulations – we can bring it back to these three simple things.”

Negotiating is a behavior that often begins to rear its head during this age, and being consistent with your rules and your temperament when those rules are broken is key. They will try to manipulate to get their way- not because they are “bad” but more because they are exerting their independence.  Using Dr. Beakley’s three concrete rules of safe, responsible, and respectful can help stop negotiation tactics in their tracks. This, along with positive reinforcement such as, “I love the way you helped your sister put on her shoes!” can make a positive atmosphere for both you and your child.

Here are 5 things you can do in order to help your 5-year-old get through this transition period:

  1. Be consistent– Rules are rules. Don’t let their expert negotiation tactics get the best of you.
  2. Be concrete– Stick with the basic principles of safe, responsible, and respectful. For example, if they are not following the rules ask them if they are being responsible and respectful.
  3. Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to– Instead of “Would you mind picking up your toys?” tell them “I need you to pick up your toys now.”
  4. Space- When they do throw a temper tantrum (and they will), give them the space they need to calm down before you start a discussion with them. When they have calmed down, start with a positive statement like, “I appreciate you calming your body” and then discuss why their behavior was inappropriate.
  5. Positive reinforcement– When you see your child doing something good, acknowledge it with a positive statement like, “I really like how you helped me clean up the dishes without me having to ask.”

Parenting is difficult, and as time goes on you may find that it never really gets easier- it just gets to be a different kind of hard. The best thing parents can do, at any stage of your child’s development is to express positive reinforcement and clear and concise rules. Dr. Beakley states that this kind of response is very powerful for any child. She says, “If there was one simple step that I could share to help increase positive interactions it would be this: catch your child being good.”


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