When our kids complain, we sometimes react the wrong way. This reader questions how to counter a five year old’s negative attitude.

Q: Our five-year-old son often has a negative attitude, but in the past few weeks has taken a turn for the worse. He regularly grumbles and complains throughout the day. When given routine directions, such as to wash his hands before lunch, has started flopping down on the floor, whining, or exploding with anger, rushing and clawing at me or his dad, threatening to hurt us or actually throwing things at us, etc. When we send him to his room to calm down, he continues to scream in his room, threatening to hurt or kill us. We don’t know how to handle these outbursts.

A: Ah, no one grumbles like a five year old! Unless it’s a nine year old. Or eleven year old… But when a child is acting out in anger like your son, I would wonder if there’s something else going on. I’m guessing he’s in kindergarten, so perhaps school has become more stressful for him. Check in with his teachers about his school behavior. If he’s fairly good at school, then it could be that he’s using up all of his energy conforming to the school rules and has nothing left when he gets home.

That’s not to excuse his behavior, but when we have a good idea of what’s happening, it can help us as parents to react more calmly. I would also see if there are particular times of day when he’s more fussy, like right before dinner or bedtime, for example. Some kids need a protein snack more frequently throughout the day to help regulate their moods. Some kids need a super-early bedtime.

But since I don’t know exactly what’s going on in your situation, here’s my advice. I would start putting him to bed around 6 p.m. Tell him the Doctor said kids who can’t control their emotions and whine a lot need more sleep. Yes, it will put a crimp in your evening routine, but since things have progressed even further, I think a week or two of an early bedtime will help. At the very least, you’ll have a quieter evening with your husband!

Kids who don’t feel connected/close to their parents don’t respond well to discipline. So even though he’s whiny and angry, make sure you have at least 10 positive interactions with him before bed every day.

Finally, ignore the screaming and threats. Your son feels powerless, so he’s expressing that in words or actions. To counter that, make sure you have many positive touchpoints with him throughout the day. Kids who don’t feel connected/close to their parents don’t respond well to discipline. So even though he’s whiny and angry, make sure you snuggle with him before his early bedtime and read a story. Listen to him tell you about his day. Call him to you for a tickle fest or hugs. Have at least 10 positive interactions with him before bed every day, and I bet you’ll see a corresponding decrease in his outbursts. They might not go away completely, as you might need to employ other methods, but they will start to get better.