When a child turns six, they can go from affectionate to rejecting in the blink of an eye. Dr. Nanika Coor helps parents navigate this challenging time with strategies for increasing connection, reducing conflict, and regulating yourself as a parent.
Today we're talking about what to expect as kids make their way from age six to age seven.
A newly minted six-year-old’s behaviors may be frustrating to their parents, causing the parent-child relationship to break down. However, having a sense of how a child’s development is impacting them, makes challenging behavior easier to manage. If you think of challenging behavior as the visible tip of an iceberg, what isn’t visible to us underneath the surface tells the whole story.
Of course not every six-year-old will behave in the same way, but knowing the typical patterns of this age means you can be more understanding when your child is loving in one minute and threatening to put you in the garbage the next.
In the book Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant, child development experts Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg explain age six as an era of ambivalence; a period when kids have difficulty making decisions and can be demanding and argumentative. They’re becoming the center of their own world and beginning to de-center their parents. They might reject their parents on the one hand and at the same time be desperate for their approval. The desire to be successful at the things they attempt is so strong that they may become dysregulated when they don’t do as well as they’d hoped, or when they aren’t first or best or recognized for their accomplishments.
Insecurity is a theme of the first half of age six, which is why you hear so much boasting and grandstanding at that age, as it helps to bolster their confidence. They have high energy and may make lots of repetitive sounds and movements. They can be bossy and competitive with younger siblings and friends. Emotions are high - and right at the surface - so outbursts can be intense. Complete collapse can occur over the smallest paper cut. Their favorite pajamas being in the laundry can result in crying of the loud, dejected, and inconsolable kind. A full-on tantrum here and there is not unheard of and sometimes “I hate you!” is thrown around.
But on the other hand, six-year-olds can also be a delight! They can be incredibly warm and affectionate. They’re inquisitive, enthusiastic about learning, and driven to explore and discover new things. They enjoy telling jokes, playing guessing games, and being extremely silly.
Focus on process rather than performance, so kids are motivated to do things because they are fulfilling, instead of just seeking approval for the effort.
8 tips to make life with a six-year-old easier
- Repair the relationship quickly following a conflict. After the two of you have struggled, make sure to reconnect by initiating repair as soon as everyone is calm again. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict, acknowledge their hurt or upset, and collaborate with them on how you’ll handle similar situations in the future. Reassure your child that your affection for them is intact regardless of challenging behavior on their part.
- Acknowledge their accomplishments. Let them know you noticed when they voluntarily waited their turn, shared with a peer or sibling, helped with household tasks, or did something kind or thoughtful for someone else. Take an interest in the things they have made or learned to do, but try to acknowledge their effort or their process rather than evaluating the outcome. Instead of saying that their picture is beautiful, let them know that you notice the different shades of blue they used. This puts a focus on process rather than performance, so kids are motivated to do things because they are fulfilling, instead of just seeking approval for the effort.
- Develop a thick skin. Don’t take to heart the provocative things that your six-year-old might say to you in frustration. Look underneath the iceberg of that behavior. Their words are telling you something about the state of your child’s nervous system, the emotions they’re experiencing, or what they might need in the moment. Pause, take a deep breath and respond (rather than react) to what lies beneath the surface of the words they’re choosing. Remind yourself that your kid is having a hard time, not giving you a hard time.
- Lean into playfulness. When your child is resisting getting their shoes on, for instance, don't get into a power struggle. Instead, pick up the nearest toys and make Toy #1 say to Toy #2, “There’s no way this kid can put their shoes on by themselves!” and Toy #2 says, “Yes they can! I’ve seen them do it! Just wait!” Toy #2 goes on to try desperately to convince Toy #1 who just refuses to believe it (and who also pretends not to see the child putting on their shoes - which they are likely doing by this point). Now your kid’s shoes are on and you’re laughing together. Win-win!
- Use declarative language. Avoid power struggles by not making direct demands. Instead of saying, “Hurry up and get your shoes on!” You might say, “Hmm. I see you’ve got your jacket on, and I’m also noticing that your shoes are over by the couch.” Declarative statements are neutral comments that don’t require a response, but give kids a window into what you’re thinking. This stimulates their own inner voice, critical thinking, and planning skills to decide what to do next all on their own.
- Make observations, not evaluations. State what you’re seeing rather than your judgments about it. Instead of telling your interrupting child that they are being “rude,” you might say, “You’re really excited to tell me something, and I’m talking to someone else right now. It’s so hard to wait!” This way, you've honed in on the needs underlying their behavior, which makes the child feel understood, that the message their behavior is trying to communicate has been received. This has a calming effect on their brain and nervous system. When you’re both calm, you can come up with solutions together more easily.
- Choose your limits wisely. Unless it’s a matter of health or safety, is your limit a necessity or are you seeing a six-year-old doing what six-year-olds do and you would just prefer that they didn’t? Can you let it go? Can you collaborate with them about a way they can keep doing what they want to do in a way that works better for you?
- You need understanding too. When you’re making great efforts at refilling your child’s emotional cup, you’re going to need some refills of your own. Finding a listening ear is a foundational way of getting your cup refilled. Find someone who’ll listen with interest and respect, without judgment, interruption, or telling you what you should do or feel. Choose a person who will keep listening to you even if you express big feelings that come with tears of rage or deep sadness. Therapy is a safe place for this kind of honest emotional release. But friends, spouses, or fellow parents can be great listeners, too.
Regularly having someone deeply listen to your complex feelings about parenting can refill your cup so you have more parenting bandwidth.
It’s normal to struggle as a parent with the extremes of age six. Using these eight tips can infuse more connection and understanding into your interactions with your child. Making neutral comments and observations, setting only the most necessary limits, and letting button-pushing remarks roll off you can cut down on conflict. And regularly having someone listen to your complex feelings about parenting can refill your cup so you have more parenting bandwidth. You can’t change your child’s age or their unique developmental trajectory - but having a general sense of how a six-year-old ticks lets you adjust your expectations and feel less aggravated about perfectly typical behavior.