Surviving Your Kid's Wacky Phases

If your child suddenly seems bossy, babyish, or diva-esque, don't freak out -- there are reasons behind all these personality quirks.
Andrew Parsons

The Bruiser

Identifying traits

  • Plows down anyone unlucky enough to beat him to the toy chest
  • Will bite for food
  • Uses his fists instead of his words

Favorite expression

"I had it first!"

What's up with that?

It's horrifying to find out that your child has bitten or shoved another kid, but the good news is that this is very common behavior, especially among toddlers. At this age kids are easily frustrated, and they can't yet express that frustration with words.

How to handle it

  • Head off battles. Keep an eye on your child and intervene before spats get physical. When you see him acting up, calmly and firmly tell him, "I know you're angry, but you cannot hit."
  • Help him express himself. If he lashes out because someone grabbed his favorite truck, ask your child to apologize and then tell the friend, "Sam was angry that you took his toy."
  • Avoid triggers. If something in particular gets your child fired up, try to steer clear of those situations.
Andrew Parsons

The Know-It-All

Identifying traits

  • Is a walking junior encyclopedia
  • Turns family dinner into a debate-team match
  • Attacks anyone who accidentally calls a calf a baby cow

Favorite expression

"I was going to say that."

What's up with that?

Something is making her feel that she's lost control over a part of her life. It could be a new daycare routine or an extended visit from a family member she's trying to impress, but your child, who is probably naturally chatty anyway, is making up for this lack of control by trying to dominate every conversation, says Tovah Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, in New York City. Starting school is another major trigger -- kids are often anxious and try to cope by acting like they know everything.

How to handle it

  • Get her to lighten up. The next time she interrupts her playdate's rendition of "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" to show him the "right" hand motions, say, "The way you do it is really nice, but let's see how Matthew does it."
  • Explain that it's okay to be wrong. The best way to do this is to make a big deal when you don't know something or make a mistake, like when you forget the name of the restaurant where you're supposed to meet a friend. Seeing that even grown-ups -- who supposedly know everything! -- have their bad days should make her feel like she doesn't have to show off all the time.
Andrew Parsons

The Donald Trump Syndrome

Identifying traits

  • Has a monopoly on the Legos
  • Must win every game at all costs
  • Micromanages his playdates

Favorite expression

"You can have the red car but not the blue one."

What's up with that?

If your child is used to getting his way at home, he may expect to be in charge in every social situation too. "Maybe you haven't been setting limits, which could get him into trouble in preschool," says Virginia M. Shiller, PhD, author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts and Activities for Positive Parenting.

Your child's personality also plays a role -- he was probably never the timid type to begin with. And if a kid with a need to lead is faced with a big life change, he may cope by turning into a bossy loudmouth. "Kids thrive on predictability, and some need more control than others," says Dr. Klein. "So if they feel unsettled, they'll try to regain some order by controlling everyone around them."

How to handle it

  • Teach empathy. When you catch your child acting bossy, ask him, "Hmm, how would you feel if your friends told you what to do?" Once he's able to put himself in the other child's position, he may lighten up.
  • Jump in and negotiate. If you see that your child won't let a kid help build the castle he's working on, say something like, "I see that you and Brad are making a nice castle, but there must be a job for Meredith. Can she help?" He'll learn that including someone doesn't mean he has to give up what he's doing.
Andrew Parsons

The Paris Hilton Syndrome

Identifying traits

  • Wouldn't dare show up at a family gathering without preparing a dance routine
  • Puts the "I" in interrupt
  • Her Cinderella costume gets more wear and tear than her jeans

Favorite expression

"Look what I can do!"

What's up with that?

This desperate need for attention may be a response to your child's sense that she's not getting enough one-on-one time with you. Perhaps a dominant older sibling is hogging the spotlight, and she's trying to compete. Or you're showering her with so much over-the-top praise that she expects that level of fawning from everyone. "Kids going through this phase are searching for outside reinforcement," says Dr. Klein. "They're not comfortable doing something just because it makes them happy -- they need adults to say, 'That was fabulous.'"

How to handle it

  • Tone down the compliments. If you tend to bust out the pom-poms every time your child finishes a puzzle, give a little smile or nod instead -- that's enough.
  • Talk about taking turns. Let her know that it's okay for her to tell everyone at Aunt Stacey's barbecue about scoring a goal at her soccer game, but you're pretty sure her cousins want a chance to talk too. Practice at the dinner table -- she can start out with a highlight from her day, but then it's her brother's turn.
Andrew Parsons

The Big Baby

Identifying traits

  • Has suddenly developed a lisp
  • Chomps on his baby sister's teething rings
  • Wants to spend the night behind bars (of his old crib, that is)

Favorite expression

"Me hungry. Feed me."

What's up with that?

Whether he's walking around clutching the lovey he ditched months ago or has forgotten all of his potty skills, the message he's sending is, "I need you." A major upheaval -- the most common being a brand-new sibling -- is likely behind your child's regression. "He'll want to sleep in the crib and suck on a pacifier because the baby, who's doing these things, is getting a lot of attention," says Lawrence Balter, PhD, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. It's also possible that a new challenge, such as starting preschool, is behind this sudden regression. Acting like a baby is a natural response to a situation that feels adult and scary.

How to handle it

  • Give lots of hugs and kisses. His actions are an expression of how insecure and needy he's feeling, so the more affection you give him, the quicker he'll snap out of it.
  • Let him act like a baby once in a while. "Telling your child he can't do or have something just makes him want it more," says Dr. Shiller. Pretending to be a baby should be limited to playful games at home, though. If he's using baby talk in the supermarket checkout line, for example, say, "I wonder if you can say that in your big-boy voice?"
Andrew Parsons

The Doormat

Identifying traits

  • Will trade her cookies for carrots at lunch
  • Has never played with the most coveted classroom toy for more than a minute
  • Regular gig: Bussing dishes at tea parties

Favorite expression

"Yeah, you can have it."

What's up with that?

Your child may need lessons in the art of negotiating, especially if she's your oldest or an only child. "Only kids never had to deal with siblings," says Dr. Klein. "And firstborns may be overly dependent on their parents, so they look to them to intervene." If you've hovered over your child, she may not feel comfortable standing up to others -- and she won't know what to do when a kid demands that she hand over the purple crayon.

You may also just have a shy child who feels intimidated by the Donald Trumps in her class. "She'll naturally be nervous about asking a controlling kid for her crayon back," says Dr. Shiller. "Or maybe she'll try weakly and won't get the response she wants, so she'll shut down."

How to handle it

  • Role-play. Prepare your child for possible confrontations by acting them out at home. That way, when someone cuts in front of her in line for the slide, she'll know what to say ("I was next").
  • Let her deal with it. It's okay to intervene, but don't speak for your child. If a kid grabs her shovel, say, "You can tell him you were playing with that." If she's too timid, help her find the words ("I'm still using the shovel, and I want it back").
Parents Magazine

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