Just a Phase

All kids occasionally exhibit behavior that drives parents crazy with frustration, worry, or exhaustion. And it can be hard to distinguish between a phase and an inherent trait. Here are six common behavior patterns and how to know if there's cause for concern.

1. The Rebel

I have a 3-year-old who won't do anything I say. She's sassy, she talks back, and she constantly disobeys me.

There's no turning back once toddlers say their first no. The power goes to their head, and before you know it, they become constantly contrary. "They're gaining some control over their actions, and they don't like someone else trying to control them," says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute, New York University Child Study Center, in New York City.

Defiance peaks around age 3, as preschoolers begin to assert their autonomy and take initiative. Throw in major transitions like toilet-teaching and going to preschool, and you've got quite a challenge on your hands. Expect lots of opposition as your child tries out different -- and sometimes quite inappropriate -- solutions to her problems.

How To Help: Allow your child to make her own decisions whenever possible, such as choosing her outfit for the day or deciding between breakfast cereals. Praise your preschooler when she's cooperative. But set clear limits as to what is, and isn't, appropriate. When she's obstinate, help her articulate her emotions. She may feel rushed or frustrated. Reprimands, a time-out, or the loss of a privilege are all good discipline methods. Take heart: As a child matures, this kind of defiance will lessen.

When It's More Serious: If your child has always been cooperative but suddenly turns combative, she may be distressed about something, such as discord at home or difficulties at school. Once the problem has been ironed out, things should return to normal. But your child's behavior needs investigation if she's defiant not only with you but with caregivers and other adults, is disruptive at school, has uncontrollable temper tantrums, and turns developmental transitions, such as toilet-teaching, into intractable power struggles.

2. The Worrywart

My fourth-grader worries about everything -- from grades and homework to possible earthquakes!

Most kids experience short periods of worry as they grow. Early on, they're anxious about starting school or being separated from their parents. Later on, they worry about a parent's dying. At around 7 or 8, a child's thinking becomes more advanced and she may be concerned about real-world possibilities. News reports of storms, plane crashes, and school shootings often trigger anxiety.

How to Help: Don't belittle your child's concerns or, conversely, overemphasize them. Put them in perspective by being honest yet reassuring: "Yes, school shootings happen, but they're very rare." You can also help your child cope with her worries by asking her questions like "What can you think of to do when you hear loud thunder so that you'll be less afraid?" This will give her a sense of control and may lessen her fears. If you're a worrywart yourself, try not to let it show. Your anxiety will only compound hers.

When It's More Serious: If her brooding is persistent, irrational, or causing physical symptoms like insomnia or nausea, or if her fear is so paralyzing that she can't focus on school, she should be evaluated by a professional. Her behavior could signal depression or an anxiety disorder.

3. The Perpetual-Motion Machine

My 5-year-old son can't sit still -- in school, in church, even at the dinner table.

For a preschooler, being active is a developmental necessity. He needs to explore his environment and learn how his body works. Activity levels are usually highest between ages 2 and 3, but many preschoolers and kindergartners still seem overly energetic. Typically, as the nervous system matures, kids become less fidgety. They're able to sit still more consistently at 6 than they were at 4 and even more at age 8 than at 6, says David Pruitt, M.D., director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore.

How to Help: Behavior management is key. Provide outlets for his energy, such as backyard romps and excursions to the playground. Avoid overstimulating places such as crowded malls, and limit time spent in places where lengthy quiet periods are mandatory, like church or the theater. Keep your child on a schedule in the morning and at bedtime. Still, you may have to get used to a fair amount of motion.

When It's More Serious: If your child is developing academically and socially, he's probably normal. But if he is extremely restless, overly impulsive, and easily distracted and inattentive, you should talk to your doctor. Your son may have an attention disorder.

4. The Scaredy-Cat

First, my 4-year-old was afraid of the neighbor's dog and wouldn't go out in the yard. Now he's afraid of the dark and needs the light on when he goes to bed.

Fears come and go throughout childhood, with the dreaded object changing as a child develops. Early on, loud noises, the bath water draining, clowns, and monsters can frighten a young child. Older kids might be terrified of heights or crowded places.

Specific phobias, like fear of the dark, often flare up during periods of transition, such as a move to a new home or the start of school. With toddlers and preschoolers, who are beginning to experience feelings of aggression, fears often seem to pop up out of nowhere.

How to Help: Talk to your child about his feelings, and offer ways to help him deal with them. Never dismiss his phobias as unwarranted. Instead, reassure him that he can handle his fears and that he'll overcome them as he gets older.

When It's More Serious: Phobias that inhibit social activities, result in physical symptoms, or persist for more than a few months should be evaluated by a professional.

5. The Shrinking Violet

My 8-year-old daughter is incredibly shy. Sometimes you'd never know she has a voice!

Some children need more time than others to adjust to new situations. "About 5 percent of kids have a social inhibition that makes them very slow to warm up," Dr. Gallagher says. "These children need to understand a situation before they feel comfortable getting involved." A tendency toward shyness is believed to be inborn. It also remains stable throughout childhood: Studies suggest that three quarters of inhibited toddlers are still shy at age 8, and many still are at 14 years old.

How to Help: Research suggests that a supportive home environment, which recognizes a child's quiet temperament and lets her go at her own pace, can be very effective at overcoming shyness. Never criticize a timid child or force her to do anything that makes her uncomfortable, such as kissing relatives or staying alone at a party. Arrange playdates at your home first before sending your child to a friend's house. But you should also encourage her to join an activity that interests her, such as a science club or a music class. "Create opportunities for her to become more familiar and comfortable with larger groups," suggests David Fassler, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont.

When It's More Serious: Seek help if she avoids all social activities, speaks very little outside the home, refuses to go to school, has vague physical symptoms without apparent cause, or is so anxious that she's unable to interact with other kids.

6. The Little Bully

My son, 3, can be very aggressive. At the playground, he'll push kids out of his way or even strike them if they frustrate him.

Being aggressive can be part of a child's temperament. Kids who exhibit the trait at a young age often continue to do so throughout childhood. Not surprisingly, boys are more likely than girls to resort to fighting. But aggression can also be temporary -- arising out of anger, fear, or sadness. The birth of a sibling, a move, or starting a new grade can all lead to aggressive behavior that subsides after the child has adjusted.

How to Help: To combat ordinary aggression, be clear about the behavior you expect from your child, and institute a consistent set of consequences, such as a time-out or a suspension of privileges, for unacceptable actions. When your child hits someone, acknowledge his feelings of frustration but also ask him how the other child might feel: "Why do you think that girl cried when you pushed her?" Then say, "Don't you think she'd feel better if you asked her nicely?" By focusing on feelings, you will begin to instill empathy, which will ultimately help change your child's behavior.

When It's More Serious: Aggression that's intended to injure or take advantage of other kids could be a red flag. Children who exhibit this kind of hostility should be evaluated by a mental-health professional.

4/01

Parents Magazine

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