By the time your child reaches age 2 or 3, you'll clearly see his personality shining through. Whether he's sensitive and somewhat ill at ease in new situations or a full-fledged diva, experts say there's a silver lining to every temperament. It's your job to nurture his special character.
Why You Worry: Your expressive child is wearing you out. Every time you say "no," it triggers a theatrical meltdown: flinging arms, yelling, slamming doors.
The Good News: "Dramatic kids live their life big, and their passion means they'll go out into the world with determination and enthusiasm," explains Paula Levy, a family therapist in Norwalk, Connecticut. The next time your child throws a fit about the peas on his plate, consider this: Kids who wear their emotions on their sleeve are usually up-front about their feelings in other areas of life.
How to Bring out His Best: "Feisty children want to be noticed," says Levy. "Give him healthy ways to express his energy and personality." Keep a box of dress-up clothes, and encourage him to act out stories or perform along with music. At the same time, give him clear boundaries so he doesn't overpower every playdate with his antics. And when a public outburst strikes? "Resist saying, 'You're not being a good boy,'" advises Mary Ann Lowry, a parenting coach in Dallas. "This gives your toddler the message that there's something wrong with him, not his behavior." A better approach: Point out that his boisterous conduct -- screaming in the grocery store -- hurts Mommy's ears, and then distract him with a picture book.
Why You Worry: You've nicknamed her "Attila the Honey" because she shouts commands to her teddy bear, her big brother, and even you. She can be quite demanding, and when she's frustrated, she resorts to angry outbursts. Will she grow into a playground bully?
The Good News: "Parents should recognize that a child's take-charge attitude is an early sign of assertiveness, the ability to express feelings openly and stand up for oneself in social situations," says Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia.
How to Bring out His Best: Encourage your child to ask for what she wants in a polite, nonaggressive way, and model an appropriate way for her to do so, says Dr. Kashdan. If she stomps her feet and orders you to play Legos, ask, "Did you mean to say, 'Mommy, will you build a tower with me?'" Make sure she calmly repeats the request. This child likes things to be done her way because it gives her a sense of autonomy, so try to allow her some control by offering two choices. For instance, ask, "Where would you like to go this afternoon -- the library or the park?"
Why You Worry: Playdates are supposed to be fun, yet your child sits alone on the sidelines instead of joining in with the other kids. She seems to have such a tough time making friends.
The Good News: "Seemingly timid children are often creative, introspective, and curious," says Levy. "I remind parents that their cautious child will probably never do the things that put the most fear in a parent -- hanging from the top of the jungle gym, riding his bike on dangerous ramps, or scootering recklessly."
How to Bring out His Best: "A toddler who is tentative about new situations just needs more time to get comfortable," says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. "Before having a playdate, prep your slow-to-warm-up child about what to expect with as much detail as possible. You might say: "After lunch, Tommy is going to come over with his mom. I thought you might play trains for a while and then have a snack." With time, you can help your shy child spread her wings by gently encouraging her to take small risks. "When they're repeatedly exposed to new experiences, timid kids become less fearful and anxious," says Dr. Kashdan.
Why You Worry: Knock-knock jokes are cute, but telling them nine times in a row -- in an outside voice at a restaurant -- not so much. Your chatty child isn't a fan of independent play and will bend the ear of any playmate in hearing range.
The Good News: "Outspoken toddlers show the skills that might help them become storytellers and leaders," says Dr. Kashdan.
How to Bring out His Best: Hand her a mic, but control the volume. Let her announce the dinnertime menu or give play-by-plays when it's cleanup time. However, teach her when she needs to tone down the showmanship. "Practice what a quiet voice sounds like, and remind her to use it when she becomes loud," says Amy Johnson, a parenting consultant in Federal Way, Washington. If you sense she's getting overwound, calm things down -- put on soft music or choose a book to read.
When your child hits these years, his behavior may become something of a challenge -- no matter what his temperament. Kids this age can be demanding, cranky, and exhausting. "A toddler's brain hasn't yet developed impulse control," says Helen Neville, R.N., a parenting educator and author of Temperament Tools. "He's reacting with primal emotions, which results in a lot of out-of-control behavior that is completely normal for this age -- and that he will likely outgrow." So be prepared for meltdowns and bratty behavior and keep your cool; if you're tense, your kid will pick up on it and get more riled up.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Parents magazine.