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The Good News About "Bad" Kids

discipline

Collette De Barros

Sometimes you wonder how it's possible. One minute your child acts like a perfect little angel. The next she's bossing her best friend around mercilessly on a playdate, ignoring your instructions to give another child a turn on the swings, or looking you squarely in the eye with frosting all over her face and swearing that she didn't sink her finger into her brother's birthday cupcake.

But look on the bright side: In many cases the same conduct that drives you crazy can signal exciting developmental leaps and might even hint at enviable traits in the works. "As a child's personality and temperament start to flower, so do some challenging behavioral quirks," says Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a child psychologist on Maui, Hawaii. The key is being able to embrace and promote these positive qualities, even as you work to correct your kid's inappropriate actions.

 
The Problem: Telling Tall Tales

It usually doesn't take much detective work to know when a young child is fibbing -- no matter how convincing her description is of the monster that squashed your iPhone.

The Good News Your kid could be showing off precocious reasoning. Research has found that children who start telling lies at age 2 or 3 -- a year or two before most of their peers -- tend to have a slightly higher IQ and an advanced ability to plan and control their actions (a process called "executive functioning"), notes Kang Lee, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Toronto's Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study. That's because lying takes more cognitive ability than simply confessing. If you ask a child, "Did you write on the wall?" she must both withhold the truth and dream up a fib. Plus, she must be capable of a little "mind reading" to discern what you already know ("Mom saw me with the markers, so I can't tell her I never had them"), a skill that Dr. Lee says is related to the development of empathy.

The Remedy Stay calm when you catch your child fibbing, regardless of her age. "You should avoid punishment and use the opportunity to explain why being honest matters -- so that people will believe what you say in the future," suggests Dr. Lee. Before you attempt to find out the real story, have her promise to tell you the truth; kids in Dr. Lee's study who did so were far less likely to keep up a lie. Make an effort to be conversational rather than confrontational ("I have a feeling that you ate a piece of candy without asking. Are you worried that you'll get in trouble by telling me?"). If your child ultimately confesses, thank her for coming clean, but avoid going overboard with praise. Then remind her, "I'm always happier to hear what really happened."

The Problem: Squealing On Others

Your tattletale always has something to report: "William didn't stop at the corner." "Jordan used the computer without asking."

The Good News A child's whistle-blowing, which starts around 3 or 4, shows that he recognizes the rules and is starting to develop a conscience. "A tattler wants everyone else to do the right thing, and that's actually the foundation of his becoming a good citizen," explains Dr. Wittenberg.

The Remedy Taming a chronic tattletale is tricky. You want the snitching to stop but there may be some situations -- such as if your child is being bullied or harassed -- when he needs you to intervene. So let him know you appreciate that he?s aware of the rules, but then steer him away from dwelling on a specific offense. When your child reports a violation ("Ryan didn't wash his hands before eating"), respond along these lines: "It's important to wash up before dinner. Thanks for the reminder. Ryan, maybe you didn't have a chance to use the sink yet?" If he's tattling because another child has wronged him, arm him with a script to work it out on his own ("I was playing with that ball. Please give it back.").

The Problem: Being Bossy
happy child

Collette De Barros

Whether it's "My turn," "Do that," or "I'm going to be the mommy again," your child's imperious behavior can alienate friends, siblings -- and you.

The Good News Her authoritative temperament hints at budding leadership skills that are bound to take her places. However, her prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that lets you think things through before reacting) is immature, which can make her come off like a drill sergeant, notes Dr. Wittenberg. You should notice a big difference by second grade, when her thinking becomes more logical and her desire to fit in helps modify her behavior.

The Remedy When she insists on running the show with her friends, let the group attempt to work it out on their own. But if she doesn't tone it down, you should intervene. Try saying something along the lines of, "Ashley, why don't you play a game in which everyone can help, like I Spy?" Later, give your child "voice lessons" to soften her tone. You might say, "When you use your bossy voice, you sound like this?now, let's hear you say it in a nice way."

The Problem: Ignoring You

When he's around other kids, your child doesn't seem to hear you. So your calls to leave the playground or to stop jumping on the sofa during a playdate go unanswered.

The Good News He's building friendships. A child is fascinated by everything his buddies are doing, saying, eating, and wearing. And he can't tune in to them and you at the same time -- at least until around first grade, when kids are better able to divide their focus, according to Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The Remedy While you don't want to interfere with your child's blossoming friendships, there are times when you need him to listen. So try something unexpected to get his attention: Sing about putting the toys away, or deliver your directions in a funny accent. Also, rather than calling to him from another room, make sure you're close by. Use a loud voice only when it's an urgent matter of safety.

The Problem: Getting Rough With Friends

While you may not approve of wrestling, pushing, and karate chopping, play-fighting sessions are completely irresistible for many young kids -- and especially boys.

The Good News For a child to be "good" at physical play he must possess certain social skills, such as knowing how to communicate nonverbally with friends, gauge how intensely to play, and stop when his buddy needs a break, says Nancy K. Freeman, Ph.D., associate professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. A kindergartner may overdo it (accidentally tackling another kid too hard, for example), but with practice he'll master the limits. Horseplay also helps him learn to manage emotions. After getting riled up from playing tag, a child must learn to calm himself down, which helps instill a critical self-soothing skill, says Dr. Cohen, who is also the coauthor of The Art of Roughhousing.

The Remedy Make sure your child and his pals are tumbling around in a safe, wide-open area and watch them closely. Step in if you notice fists flying, kicking, or unhappy facial expressions, suggests Dr. Cohen. Also work on where to draw the line at home: If he bounds into you with no warning, say, "That's too rough. You might break something. Let's take our horseplay outside."

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.