Preschoolers Behaving Badly
If your child is starting to act more like a prizefighter than a preschooler, take note: Misbehaving is not only common at this age, but expected. "Three- and 4-year-olds learn by testing the limits, so it's extremely likely that you're going to see your child acting out. But this is a completely normal way for kids to react to situations they dislike or don't have control over," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years and mother of 4-year-old twin girls. Don't stress; it doesn't mean you've got to sit back and accept the hitting, fighting, and biting. This is a great age to teach your child that there are better ways to solve problems than by hurling a toy train across the room at you. You can easily tame these common rude moves if you follow our expert tips.
Why they do it: Your child's tall tales aren't malicious. "Kids this age don't understand that saying something that's not true is wrong," says Dr. Berman. Preschoolers generally tell two kinds of lies: self-preservation fibs and fanciful ones. The former, denying coloring on the wall, for example, helps her save her butt. But she brags to friends about the pet penguin she got for her birthday because the difference between fantasy and reality is still blurry at this age - which isn't surprising since most of her day revolves around pretend play.
How to deal: If she's pulling a Pinocchio, point out the lie without sounding judgmental or angry. "Fibs tend to be wishful thinking, so acknowledge that," says Dr. Berman. You might say, "I realize you wanted Daddy to say that you could watch TV before bed, but I know that he didn't, so we're going to have to wait until tomorrow to watch Dora." Eventually she'll learn that making things up isn't going to get her anywhere. Whatever you do, don't punish her for lying. Your imaginative preschooler might actually believe some of her own fibs, so a lesson about the importance of telling the truth will be more effective than a ten-minute time-out at this age.
Why they do it: "Whining is an expression of discontent, whether it's boredom or hunger," says Norman E. Hoffman, Ph.D., author of Bad Children Can Happen to Good Parents. Plus, your preschooler has probably figured out that whining is an effective method for getting your attention, so it's his go-to voice when he's feeling upset or wants something.
How to deal: Even when the high-pitched whimpering has you reaching for your earplugs, it's important to keep your cool. Tell your child that you can't understand him when he whines, and that if he wants to talk to you he'll have to use a nicer voice. Then give him props when he does use a whine-free tone. Simply ignoring his howls won't help the situation and could make it worse; if you walk away from his caustic cries for a snack, just think how much crankier he'll be once dinner rolls around. And don't rule out fatigue; a whiny kid is often a tired kid.
Why they do it: Your kid may genuinely want to see what happens when she launches her sister's Barbie off the jungle gym, but preschoolers usually throw things during fits of anger or frustration or when they want to get your attention.
How to deal: Kids often don't realize their own strength and that the Frisbee they toss around in the backyard can do some serious damage when it's hurled across the dining room. So if you don't want to install bulletproof glass in front of your china, set up clear rules about what can be thrown (soft balls and pillows) and where (the yard and in bed). But if she's tossing books out of frustration, acknowledge how she feels: "I know you're mad, but you can ruin your books if you throw them. And if they get ruined, we can't read them. Once I get off this call we can read Curious George together."
Why they do it: This is a frustrating age for kids; they have the vocabulary to express themselves but when something is bugging them they can't always spit out the words fast enough or with sufficient detail to get their point across. So when your preschooler doesn't want to share a toy but can't articuate that before it's snatched away, he may resort to hitting.
How to deal: If your child bops his pal over the head when he takes his Lightning McQueen car away from him, let him know that hitting is not okay and teach him how to use his words to fix the problem. "It's empowering for kids to learn how to negotiate for themselves," says Dr. Berman. Say, "It looks like you weren't done with your race. How about asking Peter if you can have the car back?" Some kids this age will still resort to biting when they're unable to cope verbally. If you have a snapper, use the same strategy to help him chill out on the chomping.
Why they do it: Preschoolers want to be in charge, and they also have a strong sense of how they like things to be. Sometimes your child may be making demands to see what she can get away with, and other times she just wants to let you know that you put her toothbrush away on the wrong shelf.
How to deal: There's a fine line when it comes to bossiness; you want to respect your child's wants and needs without becoming her puppet. If she tells you that only Daddy can pour her cereal, and your husband is nearby, it won't hurt to let her get her way. But if she orders you to give her another cookie, don't give in to her demands. Stop the sass by explaining that extra Oreos are only doled out if they are asked for politely. And if she insists on being snarky? Move on. Eventually the lessons will sink in, but for now you've got to pick your battles.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Parents magazine.