5 Year Old Tantrums and Hitting: Effective Strategies For Calm Parenting

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

What should you do if your 5 year old child displays verbally aggressive behaviour or physical aggression towards you?

You will probably have questions, emotions, worries or concerns. 

In fact, a 5 year old hitting parents is more common than you might think. Learning to manage big emotions is a normal part of child development and it’s a gradual process.

Let’s think it through together and talk through my recommended strategies for five year old tantrums and hitting, as a counsellor and parent.

a five year old boy having a tantrum

Five Year Old Tantrums: The Lowdown

Children of this age are in a fast-track developmental phase. Young children are very poor at emotional regulation and impulse control. They do not have any anger management skills!

The main reason for this is that their brains are highly underdeveloped. There are not enough connections between the thinking part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) and the emotions centre of the brain yet. (We often call this the “upstairs brain” and the “downstairs brain”.)

What this means is that young kids are almost entirely relying on you, their parent, to regulate their strong feelings with them (“co-regulate”).

Here’s a brilliant video from the Administration for Children & Families showing the difference between self-regulation and co-regulation.

YouTube video

Depending on your child’s temperament, emotional sensitivity, and many other factors (such as developmental delays), the job of co-regulation might be easier or harder for you.

Negative behaviour like hitting can be a symptom of many things such as anxiety, frustration or an inability to communicate their wants and needs.  

One of the main reasons children hit or have tantrums is they are having a hard time communicating or expressing what they need. They are still very young after all, and they don’t have the language for all the emotions and situations they are faced with. 

If a five year old’s needs are left unmet, even bad behaviour such as hitting is likely to get their parent’s attention, which may be what they need in that moment.

Let’s look at developing a clear strategy for managing 5 year old tantrums first of all. After that, we will hone in on year olds hitting parents, and what to do there.

Five Year Old Tantrums: Develop a Clear Strategy

If your child is displaying challenging behaviours or hitting family members at 5 years old, you must formulate a clear strategy of how you will deal with it. 

This will include boundaries that you and your partner or other significant adults will need to be consistent with so that your child receives the same message any time it happens.

The parent-child relationship can be tested when difficult situations arise. It might be an area of shame and desperation for you, if your child is hitting you or others.

Having a clear strategy when tackling behavioural problems will demonstrate to your child that you can help to hold their feelings while protecting their other relationships.

Five Year Old Tantrums: Could it Be Anxiety?

Angry behavior in 5-year-olds may sometimes be a result of anxiety.

Children who are dealing with anxiety lose control of their emotions when the fight or flight response is triggered.

The “fight” part of the fight or flight response causes a spike in adrenaline in the body, leading to outbursts of anger or frustration.

At this point your five year-old will have lost control. Their brain has triggered a survival response and therefore they won’t respond to reason or logic.

Anxiety in young children can stem from various sources, such as separation from parents or fear of new situations.

Could anxiety be an important factor for your child?

Read our article called When Your Anxious Child Looks Like an Angry Child if you want to consider this in more detail.

Other reasons for angry behaviour in a 5 year old may include:

Five year old tantrums: contributing factors

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Containment: The Most Powerful Strategy For Five Year Old Tantrums

We have explored why five year olds have tantrums and why they can’t manage big emotions themselves.

Now we can approach the solution with empathy and understanding, which will lead the most effective way to stop it: containment.

Containment involves remaining calm and composed while setting limits on unacceptable behavior.

Try to empathise with your child’s emotion (e.g. you could say “I know you’re angry but I need to keep everybody safe”). Intense feelings can be overwhelming and scary for 5 year-olds.

You may be feeling annoyed, upset, upset or angry, but remember your child does not have the skills to regain control. They need an adult to do this for them.

Stay focused on your child. When dealing with a tantrum, it’s important to stay focused on your child and their needs. Tune out any embarrassment or judgment from others around you and prioritize your child’s well-being.

You are their “safe place”.

Severe tantrums might test you to the limit, especially if they happen in public places.

One tip is to have a plan for dealing with angry outbursts or tantrums so that you don’t have to think on your feet.

close up of 5 year old boy talking outside

Example: Janette’s Action Plan for Managing 5 Year Old Charlie’s Tantrums

  1. Try to distract Charlie if his emotions start to escalate.
  2. If that doesn’t work, get to a quiet place if possible.
  3. Get down to Charlie’s level. Speak in a calm, soothing voice.
  4. Explain that Mummy is there to help. But don’t give in to his demands.
  5. Give Charlie his blankie to calm him. If we don’t have blankie, massage his hands.
  6. However loud he gets keep talking to him in a soft soothing voice.
  7. Once he starts to calm, focus on slow “balloon breathing” and ask him to copy. If he won’t join in, carry on anyway.
  8. Once Charlie has calmed down, get him home or to a quiet place as soon as possible.

5 Year Olds Hitting

We have talked through how to co-regulate your child. Now let’s move on to the trickier issue of hitting.

A 5 year old may hit their parent when their frustration or fear is so big, they don’t know what to do with it.

That doesn’t make it okay, though. Again, we need a clear plan.

Let’s look at what to do if your 5 year old hits you “in the moment”, followed by how to prevent your 5 year old hitting next time.

5 year old girl angry upset crying

What to Do When Your 5 Year old Hits You (in the Moment)

First of all, it isn’t OK for a child to hit anyone and getting this message across is important. 

However, to successfully tackle this behaviour in the moment, there are some subtle things to include.

Here are 5 steps to follow when your child hits you in the heat of the moment.

  1. Step in immediately and get down to their level, making eye contact.
  2. Gently hold their hand/hands and say something like ‘No hitting’, ‘we don’t hit in this house’, ‘hitting hurts, you must stop’. At this stage, don’t enter into a big conversation about what’s happened.
  3. Let your child know that you understand they are angry and they can tell you about it.
  4. Encourage your child to take some slow, deep breaths. They should imagine that their tummy is a balloon and they are blowing it up, then slowly deflating it. This will help to increase oxygen to the brain and lower their stress levels by stimulating their parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” calming response). Do this alongside them.
  5. Use a gentle and calm tone of voice.

How to Prevent Your Five Year Old Hitting Next Time

Parenting is hard work. It’s inevitable that your child will have outbursts sometimes.

It’s important to try to be a good enough parent, not a perfect parent.

If your child is hitting out, think about appropriate ways to prevent this from happening and your new strategy will take some persistence and consistency to start working.

First of all, working out common triggers and identifying patterns for a 5 year old hitting parents is important. 

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Are they triggered by frustration, excitement or anxiety?
  • Could it be their environment, or being with certain people?
  • Do they find sharing really challenging or become aggressive if they’re over-stimulated?

The answers to these questions will help you develop a prevention action plan.

For example, if over-stimulation is a problem, then you might plan not to stay more than a couple of hours at parties, or to ensure your child has some quiet time away from others if you are at a large gathering.

Here are some of the most effective ways to help prevent your 5 year-old hitting next time

  1. Be aware and stay alert and try to anticipate and pre-empt problems building. For example, if you know that they can cope with parties for around an hour before they tend to become overwhelmed and over-tired, plan to stay for just an hour.
  2. Make sure you have very clear limits. Ensure you and your child are clear about what they are. Our article about managing difficult behaviour will give you some ideas about limits and boundaries.
  3. Have some coping strategies to help reduce stress. For example, use an anger thermometer to identify strategies that calm your child at different stages of anger.
  4. Create a strong support network of family, friends and professionals if necessary.
  5. Label and praise positive behaviours, such as times when your child managed to stay calm.
  6. Try to avoid power struggles and escalating anger.
  7. Understand what your child’s body language is saying about the situation they’re in.
  8. Nurture and support them to develop good communication and social skills.
  9. Allow natural consequences.

I really like this video from Hand in Hand parenting, with a lovely (and real) example of staying calm when your child hits you.

YouTube video

Five Year Old Hitting: Case Study – Robbie

5 year old Robbie lives at home with Mum and Dad and his little brother Richard.

Mum looks after the boys at home and Robbie’s daily routine includes going to school in the mornings.

A few weeks ago, Robbie hit his mum quite hard when she was asking him to get his shoes on for school. It was a complete shock, she didn’t see it coming. She told him it off for being naughty and made him apologise.

Recently, Robbie’s behaviour has been more and more aggressive with regular angry outbursts. 

Mum doesn’t always find it easy to manage Robbie’s anger and aggressive behaviour, especially when both boys are together. 

She sometimes raises her voice and occasionally falls into the trap of telling Robbie ‘because I said so’.  This happens especially when she’s in a time pressured situation.

Mum has been able to shield Richard from seeing Robbie hitting her up to now, but today was different. 

Robbie screamed and started hitting mum when his screen time was stopped, despite pre-warning and his little brother saw him lashing out and hitting their mum repeatedly.

This got Mum thinking, ‘I need to understand what’s going on for Robbie and why he’s hitting out. I’m really worried about Richard copying his brother’s behaviour’.

Robbie: The Plan

This is what Mum and Dad decided to do

  • Mum’s first step was to talk things through with Dad. They both agreed on a consistent and supportive approach to understand and help Robbie together.
  • They agreed on a strategy of how to deal with Robbie if he did hit out. This included thinking about the language and tone of voice they would use, consistent messages and agreed potential age-appropriate consequences.
  • They thought about the best way to talk to Robbie about his hitting. Dad suggested an informal approach of chatting over a game or activity together.

Mum and Dad discovered that Robbie really likes school but he wonders what Mum and Richard are up to at home. 

He knows they go to soft-play and the park and he wants to go too. He’s cross; he thinks he misses out but he doesn’t know what to say.

mum and little boy hugging and touching noses

Robbie also gets angry when he can’t do things like his shoelaces or play for a long time on his tablet device.  He doesn’t like Mum telling him ‘he can’t’ so he gets cross and hits her.

Listening to Robbie has been really helpful.

Mum and Dad understand things better now. 

They’ve told Robbie that he can tell them anything and they will listen and try to help. They’ve also explained why hitting isn’t OK and how Robbie might be able to express frustration in healthier ways.

Five Year Olds Hitting Parents: What To Avoid

If your child is having an outburst or meltdown, read our guide to what to avoid doing.

Here are my top tips:

  • Getting angry or shouting. Stay as cool and calm as you possibly can. This can help to diffuse an angry situation more quickly and effectively.
  • Resist the urge to punish ‘in the moment’. This is something you can discuss afterwards when your child’s emotions have regulated.
  • Physical punishment – this is never recommended. Physical punishment is a way of exerting ‘power’ over a child and can build fear into the relationship.
  • Never hit your child back.
  • Corporal punishment is never okay.

It’s a good idea to talk with your child about what has happened, but leave some space between the event and the talk.

Remember, positive reinforcement and praising good behaviour is a powerful way of teaching your child that there are better ways than hitting to get their feelings heard.

5 year old hitting parents: what to avoid

5 Year Olds Hitting at School: Parent Guide

If your 5-year-old is hitting others in the school setting, it can be a challenging situation.

You may feel guilt or shame, and you probably feel overwhelmed or powerless.

Try to put aside your own feelings if you can.

It happens.

Children develop at different rates and have very different needs. Just because your child is showing negative behavior, it doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong, or that their is something wrong with them.

Here’s what you can do to address this behaviour:

  1. Understanding the Behaviour: Realize that hitting is often a sign your child is struggling to express complex emotions. Recognize this as part of their developmental stage and an opportunity for learning emotional regulation. Try to remove your personal feelings (such as shame or embarrassment) from the situation. This is not your fault.
  2. Effective Collaboration with School:
    • Open Communication: Initiate regular discussions with your child’s teacher. Share insights about your child’s behaviour at home and learn about their behaviour at school.
    • Consistent Strategies: Work with the school to develop a consistent approach to managing hitting incidents. Ensure the strategies used at school align with those at home.
    • Action Plan Development: Collaborate with the teacher to create an action plan for when hitting occurs. This might include time-outs, reflection periods, or specific language to be used with your child.
    • Regular Updates and Adjustments: Schedule periodic meetings with the teacher to discuss progress and make adjustments to strategies as needed.
    • Involve Support Staff: If available, involve school support staff or psychologists in creating a comprehensive approach to your five year old’s behaviour.
    • Parent-Teacher Partnership: Establish a positive partnership approach with the teacher, showing mutual respect and a united front in addressing the behavior.
  3. Post-Incident Discussions at Home: Engage in calm discussions with your child after learning about hitting incidents. Encourage them to express their feelings and guide them towards healthier emotional responses.
  4. Teach Emotional Skills: Proactively teach your child non-aggressive ways of expressing their feelings, like using words, creating art, or engaging in physical activities to channel energy.
  5. Role-Playing at Home: Use role-playing to simulate challenging situations, helping your child learn non-aggressive responses.
little girl thoughtful

5 Year Old Tantrums and Hitting: When and How to Seek Professional Help

A 5 year old hitting parents it’s usually due to them experiencing big feelings or strong emotions about something.

If you feel your child is displaying especially aggressive behaviour over an extended period of time you should seek professional help.

Firstly, talk to their teacher about the behaviour they observe in your child. Then talk to your GP about your concerns. They may wish to refer them for an assessment with a Child Psychologist or Paediatrician. Different treatment approaches will be dependent on the underlying causes.

Sometimes, physical or mental health issues can be an underlying cause of aggression in young children

Examples include: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) or other developmental delays, including speech.

Whereas ADHD and ASD are characterised by a difference in the way the brain functions, ODD is simply a descriptive term given when a child shows persistently challenging behaviour.

In addition, talk to other parents and get some other peoples’ perspectives. Seek out support for yourself through forums, or parent groups or courses where you can learn strategies on how to support and overcome difficult hurdles.

Five Year Old Tantrums and Hitting: Summary

We’ve established some reasons for a 5 year old hitting parents why it’s important to seek out an understanding behind the behaviour.

Your 5 year old is still a very little person who is developing and learning a multitude of skills.

Give them and you time to work through difficult periods.

Tweak and try different approaches and don’t forget, you’re not alone.

Related Articles

Flexible Parenting and Boundaries

7 Easy Ways to Manage Temper Tantrums in Your 7 Year Old

Free Printable Anger Thermometer & Parent Guide

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children of All Ages

Teach Your Child to Self-Regulate With a Calming Box: A Step-By-Step Guide

Calm an Angry or Panicky Child in Five Surprising Ways

Is Your Child’s Behaviour Difficult After School?

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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