Parenting for the Perplexed | Daughter is sweet in kindergarten, but oh-so sour at home

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected]

Since our daughter started kindergarten, she’s become aggressive. When angry, tired or hungry, she kicks, hits, scratches and bites. But never at kindergarten! Even at home, most of the time she’s sweet, kind and funny. Our firm boundaries lead to her yelling “I don’t care. I’m going to kick you in the face. I’m mean and stupid and you think so, too.” A few times we’ve had to physically restrain her to keep her from hurting us, herself or her 2-year-old brother. With time to cool off, she is back to herself. Both the negative self-talk and the physical violence worry me. Is it starting kindergarten? Is something in her environment the trigger (I’ve been commuting long hours this year)? Or is there is something really off that needs professional attention? — Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom: You’re right to worry about how intensely your daughter reacts to frustration, fatigue and hunger. I’m sure it’s worse when all three are combined. Family stress, your absences and starting kindergarten are probably all part of why she reaches the boiling point, despite her basic sweet temperament.

Often the best way to diagnose whether a problem is environmental/ situational or a developmental/personality issue is to alter the situation and see if the problem resolves. The fact that she behaves well at school tells you that she has the capacity to hold herself together for a pretty long time. The meltdowns are triggered by either the end-of-the-day fatigue or coming home or being at home (or all of those). Keeping herself together at school may be such a strain that she falls apart at home. If so, I’d expect the tantrums very soon after you pick her up or get home. Rest assured, the “angel at school; demon at home” syndrome is common, and it’s better this way than the other way around.

Here’s how I’d start:

Institute “special time” when you pick her up, before getting home: a healthy snack, a short walk, reviewing her day or progressive relaxation (see below) in the car parked in your driveway (before going inside).

Often the trouble is transitioning from school structure to unstructured time at home. While driving, plan exactly what she’ll do once she’s there.

Chart when outbursts occur. Is it mostly in late afternoon? Does she need rest? A snack? Is it when you and your husband must divide your attention between her, her brother, each other, and preparing dinner? Make a “pre-emptive action plan” with a set sequence of snack, rest and activities.

Use relaxation techniques. Kids easily go on “a trip” of imagined soothing landscapes or learn “progressive relaxation.” With eyes closed, start from the toes and go up to fingers and face, tightening the muscles to the count of 1,2,3 and then releasing.

Plan more time alone with you, with no phones and no tasks competing for your attention. Pick three weekly “special times” —  a 20-minute stroll, doing a puzzle together, playing dress up or reading a favorite book.

Have a heart-to-heart talk when she is cheerful. Say you can see how angry she gets and how upsetting it is for everyone. Tell her the mean things she says about herself and you are not true. Then drop it; the more you react to these statements, the more she’ll know they really yank your chain.

Make a book together: each page for something that makes her angry. She can draw it, or how she feels. These are “containers” you are providing her for her anger.

Set an “I’m really mad spot” with punching bag, newspapers to tear, paper and crayons. Encourage and praise her for using it when she’s mad.

Read “Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No-good, Very Bad Day.” Over and over.

Make it clear verbally, and by physically restraining her if needed, that you won’t let her hurt anyone — neither you, your husband, her brother, other kids, nor herself.

If three to four weeks go by with no improvement, definitely seek professional help.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.