Why 5 May Be the Hardest Age of All


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Forget the terrible twos: It’s 5-year-olds who will really try mom’s and dad’s patience, according to the results of a new parenting survey.

”When you find out you are expecting a child, everyone warns you about the sleepless nights that come with having a newborn — either that or the struggles you face during the hormonal teenage years,” notes Liz Fraser, modern family expert at Care.com, the caregiver-service website that surveyed 2,000 parents in the U.K. for its findings. ‘’But it seems parents really need to be prepared for when their children approach school age at the tender age of 5 for the biggest challenges.” That’s when fierce tantrums and sassy teen-like attitudes begin creeping in, she adds — on top of the already-difficult realization among parents that their “baby is growing up.”

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Babies, in contrast, were surprisingly well regarded on the difficulty scale, as 66 percent of parents surveyed felt that the “sleepless nights” stage for newborns was among the easiest periods of raising a child.

Care.com determined the age that seemed most difficult by averaging the ages given by all 2,000 respondents; the result was 4.85.

The biggest challenges of parenting a 5-year-old, survey respondents said, included the following: stubbornness, answering back, having other children influence their behavior, accepting they are no longer babies, tantrums, struggling with discipline techniques, encouraging them to work hard at school, and juggling work and childcare with school hours.

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“There is a lot to deal with. It’s a whole different world,” Katie Bugbee, Care.com’s senior managing editor and global parenting expert, tells Yahoo Parenting. She admits she was initially “shocked” by the result of age 5 as hardest (and would personally choose the ages of 2 and 3), but then she thought about the many issues that collide between 4 and 5 — the start of kindergarten, the expectation of educational milestones being reached (reading, writing, socializing), and the juggling of school, work, and family time for everyone. “This is when it’s getting real,” Bugbee says.

“It actually makes a lot of sense,” California-based parenting coach Debbie Zeichner tells Yahoo Parenting, “because 5-year-olds are still teetering between being a little kid and being a big kid. They can say more and think in more complex ways, but they’re still prone to tantrums and meltdowns.”

Myrna B. Shure, Drexel University professor emeritus of psychology and author of several parenting books including “Raising a Thinking Child,” tells Yahoo Parenting that developmental hallmarks for kids between ages 4 and 6 include a leap in independence and improved language and motor skills.

“They develop enough language to be able to solve problems that are important to them,” Shure notes. And while that could be a relief for some moms and dads, others could feel unsettled to suddenly find themselves in lawyer-like negotiations with the kids they still regard as their babies. If you’re in the latter camp, the experts suggest a couple of main ways to stay even-keeled when dealing with the new little people ruling your lives:

Establish good sleep habits and morning/evening routines. “Obviously a well-rested child is a happier child,” Zeichner says, noting that at this age, 10 to 12 hours of shuteye is ideal for them to recharge. “But with all of the after-school activities and playdates that tend to start, that sometimes gets pushed aside.” She suggests establishing (or maintaining) a nighttime routine, and to do the same for mornings, when many parents face challenges getting kids out the door for school. And make them part of the solution process. “Tell your child, ‘I notice we’re having a lot of trouble getting out the door in the morning. What do you think we need to do?” she suggests, adding that you make a show of writing down their ideas and then trying them out in the morning, giving them credit for helping things to go smoothly. “They want to feel valuable. They want to feel capable,” Zeichner says.

Accept negotiating as part of your new reality. “Negotiating is a really important life skill for us all to hone, as it increases our ability to problem-solve,” Zeichner says. So instead of letting it anger you, try to see the good in it — and understand where it’s coming from. “After a long day at school they’re tired, and they’re told what to do all day. They are able to hold it together at school, but at home, where they’re more comfortable, they feel like, ‘Are you seriously telling me one more thing I have to do?’,” she says. “A bonus for parents of kids this age is that they can understand more and talk more.” You can still hold your ground; just be sure to set your limits “with kindness and firmness,” she says.

Change your discipline strategy. If your child is frequently aggressive and lacks empathy when unable to get what he or she wants, consider involving your child in the solution rather than meting out a punishment or an order, suggests Shure, who has done extensive research on this approach with the 4-to-6-year-old set. So if the problem is that the child won’t share with peers, for example, and he or she becomes frustrated when asked to do so, think about your reaction in terms of Shure’s “rungs of power,” with the bottom rungs, or least-effective reactions, being to shamefully punish (e.g., with a time out) or to give directions (“Just hand the toy over — now”). Instead, try explaining to your child why hitting when he or she wants a toy might be a bad idea (“The other child might hit you back”). Or better yet, completely involve your child in your problem-solving brainstorming, perhaps by asking what a fair solution for everyone might be, or how the other kid might feel when he or she gets hit.

“This way, he’s much more likely to carry out a positive, pro-social solution, because it’s his. He owns it, and he becomes part of it,” Shure says. “They love the idea of solving their own problems.”