Why Is My Preschooler Breaking the Rules?

Four- and 5-year-olds can suddenly start acting rude and defiant. Here's how to make the penalty fit the crime.

The Ferocious 4s and 5s

Boy in a prison outfit	Shannon Greer

After making it through the "terrible twos," you were probably expecting some smooth sailing on the parenting front -- at least until your child hit puberty. But your preschooler's sudden turn to the dark side -- talking back or name-calling, for example -- might leave you scratching your head and wondering, "What happened to my sweet child?"

"Four- and 5-year-olds can act out in defiant and challenging ways," says Claire Bainer, coauthor of Second Home: A Day in the Life of a Model Early Childhood Program. This is partly because they're just starting to experiment with power and control. On top of that, kids this age are learning how people respond to each other, and they're grappling with new feelings and how to express them. All of this can lead to behavior that will make you cringe.

While your kid's behavior can be horrifying, especially in public, it doesn't mean he's destined for trouble. Here are some smart ways to rein in your little rebel.

    The Crime: Name-Calling

    At 4, Rupert Schwartz discovered an exciting new word: "stupid." With just a twist of his tongue, he suddenly had the power to make his mother go ballistic. "He's fascinated with using it," says his mom, Margaret, of Falls Church, Virginia.

    Why the sudden need to push buttons? Preschoolers are power freaks. When your child was a toddler, he expressed his newfound power physically: by hitting, biting, or snatching a toy. But now his power trips are more sophisticated, and 4- and 5-year-olds love setting off fireworks -- especially the mommy and daddy kind. If you react strongly to something he says, he'll like all the attention he gets and will most likely use the word again.

    The Fix: If your child resorts to name-calling when he's angry or frustrated, help him to tune in to what he's really feeling, says Ken Haller, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University. You can do this by labeling his emotions for him. For example, tell him: "You're angry at me because I asked you to put your blocks away. It's okay to say, 'Mom, I'm angry at you.' But you can't call me a name." Try not to react too emotionally to his outburst, but do let him know that there will be a consequence.

      The Crime: Petty Theft

      After a playdate, your child doesn't want to give up her friend's toy. On the way home, you realize she snuck it out with her. What gives?

      Don't worry. It's common for preschoolers to take things that don't belong to them. No, your child is not a "thief" -- she just doesn't view stealing the same way you do. "We're talking about a law in our society that we all know and have agreed to," says Bainer. "But at 4 or 5, she doesn't understand that this rule applies to her yet."

      In her mind, she probably thinks taking a friend's toy or even swiping candy from a store is on the same level as taking from the cookie jar at home. It'll be another couple years before she really gets the concept of stealing and realizes that it can result in more than a time-out.

      The Fix: Treat this as a mix-up because that's really what it is, says Bainer. Stay calm, and explain to her that she made a mistake -- the toy belongs to Nicky, and he likes it as much as she does. Then, help her return it and get her to apologize or say something like, "I'll try to remember next time that your toys stay at your house." Fight the urge to scold her. Shaming her will only make the situation worse. Instead, use this as an opportunity to teach her about what's mine versus what's yours.

        The Crime: Back Talk

        When Shannan Boyer, of Park Hills, Kentucky, told her 4-year-old, Sean, that he couldn't have a Thomas the Tank Engine toy, he informed her that he was going to return her to the "Mommy Store."

        While such insults can sting, you shouldn't take them as a rejection of you, says Kay Abrams, PhD, a psychologist in Kensington, Maryland. Your child is becoming increasingly independent, and he's trying to figure out his place in the world -- and your place in his. Testing his boundaries is good: It means he feels secure enough to push you away.

        The Fix: It's hard not to take your child's comments too personally when it seems like he's attacking you. But you have to remember to be the grown-up in the situation: "Don't ever try to hurt his feelings to show him just how much he hurt yours," says Dr. Abrams. If you feel like you're going to lose your temper or say something you'll regret, walk away or take a deep breath and count to 10. Once you regain your composure, you can calmly help him correct his behavior. And don't coax him into admitting that he really does love you, adds Dr. Haller.

        If he says he hates you or doesn't want you to be his mother, just tell him, "Well, I love you, and I love being your mom."

          The Ultimate Rejection

          You thought you had another 10 years until your child started tuning you out, but sometimes it seems like he's 5 going on 15. And acting as if you don't exist can actually hurt worse than lashing out at you. But don't read too much into his behavior: "He's probably hoping that if he avoids looking at you or pretends he doesn't hear you, then maybe he can keep doing what he wants," says author Claire Bainer. The best way to deal with your child's ignoring you is to come down to his level: Get real close to him, make eye contact, use firm tones, and give him simple instructions with a consequence (for example, say: "Get ready for bed now so we'll have time to read a story").

            Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the July 2007 issue of Parents magazine.