Trying to Understand a Child’s Destructive Behavior

Q: Our six-year-old daughter is extremely sweet-natured. She is the third of four children (girl, boy, girl, girl) and has just started kitah alef. She is very happy in school. Last night, I found her drawing pictures on the wall next to her bed. This morning, I noticed that she has cut a hole in her school bag (I don’t know when she did this). She also sometimes scribbles over her beautifully colored pictures. How do we get to the bottom of what is going on?

A: What is not clear from your brief letter is whether the behavior you describe represents a sudden departure from her normal pattern or this is the way she has always been. If your daughter has always had a tendency to be destructive — which Chazal understood can be a normal childhood inclination (Yoma 78b) — I recommend you read Chapter 26 of my recently released The Parenting Partnership, where I addressed this issue at length. If, however, you are describing an abrupt behavior change, let me walk you through some of the possibilities.

The first thing you need to do is ask your daughter about her behavior. Unfortunately, the simplest and most effective strategies are also the ones most often overlooked by parents. Sometimes, simply by asking their child for an explanation, parents can “get to the bottom of what is going on.”

The next step is to consider whether your daughter may have been mistreated by someone at home or school. The fact that she is “sweet natured” and happy does not automatically rule out this option. Young children are very adept at masking their emotions. They are less able to control their behavior. As a result, children’s behavior is a better indicator of possible problems than their mood or feelings.

In order to rule out this alternative, you need to talk to your daughter. You have to ask her in language that she will understand if she has been intimidated, bullied or mistreated by a peer, an older child or an adult. If she assures you that she was not, follow up by asking if this were happening to her, would she feel comfortable informing you? In addition, you should initiate similar inquiries with the other significant adults in her life such as your spouse, her teacher, the bus driver, etc.

Another consideration needs to be family dynamics. Ask yourself, for example, whether there have been any major changes at home. Has any member of the immediate or extended family become seriously ill recently? Has the family moved, even to a new apartment in the same neighborhood? Has her father been laid off? These are the kind of developments which can have a significant impact on a six-year-old.

Furthermore, has anyone moved out of or into your home? For example, has an older sibling moved into a dormitory at yeshivah or seminary? Has a grandparent moved in temporarily or permanently? These are also major changes in the life of a young child.

Finally, how old is your youngest daughter? How recently was she “added” to your family? The arrival of a new sibling of the same gender can be extremely unsettling to a six-year-old.

If the answer to any of the aforementioned questions is yes, the next step would be to initiate a discussion with your daughter about that development. Ask her how she feels about it. Tell her you have been thinking that it must present a major change for her. And let her know that you are eager to hear what she has to say without judging her feelings in any way.

If there were no changes at home, then the only other possibility is that your daughter is reacting to something going on at school. While no one may be mistreating her, she still could be having a negative reaction to some change in personnel or routine. For this information, you will need to consult your daughter’s teacher. Some children react more strongly to change than others. While some children view new classrooms, new teachers and new programs as exciting adventures, other children experience them as triggers for feelings of insecurity and anxiety.

Once again, if your daughter’s teacher indicates that there has been a change at school, you will need to go back to your daughter and discuss that with her. How did she feel about the change and what does it mean to her?

If, after all this investigation, you come up with nothing, wait and see if your daughter does not revert to her former self on her own. Often aberrant behaviors remit spontaneously without any special intervention on the part of the parents. If a few weeks go by, however, and your daughter continues this pattern, consultation with a professional would be recommended.


The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.