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Little Kid, Big Temper?

When my 19-month-old, Finn, decides he's not in the mood to get in the car seat, he pulls a move I call The Plank: He goes rigid as a board. (He'd be a star in my yoga class, but it's not so cute when you're trying to get the groceries home.)

Finn's sister, Lela, used to be pretty good at The Plank, too. Now that she's 3, she's perfected the Civil Disobedience method: She goes limp as a rag and sees if Mom or Dad can haul all 40 pounds of her into the bathtub or wherever it is she doesn't want to be right then. If that doesn't work, she often resorts to that toddler-and-preschooler classic, the screaming tantrum, just to let us (and everyone else within 50 yards) know how she feels.

Scenes like these can be horribly embarrassing and upsetting for everyone involved, but in one way they're actually good news, believe it or not. The next time your once-easygoing baby turns into a howling banshee in the produce section, try to view the unseemly episode as a good indication that her emotional development is right on schedule.

Until age 5 or so, kids often don't know how to distinguish between feeling mad and expressing it with fists, feet, or wails. It's quite a combination  -- strong emotions plus poor impulse control. The trick is to help your child weather the emotional storms without going into major meltdown mode yourself.

So read on to discover some common anger triggers for toddlers and preschoolers-and some strategies to help you and your child cope with them.

Feeling powerless
By the time they're 18 months old, kids begin to understand that they have their own thoughts and feelings, separate from yours  -- and that those thoughts and feelings can be thwarted.

If I had a dollar for every snack-related meltdown that's happened in my house, Lela and Finn's college funds would be overflowing. But sometimes a pretzel isn't just a salty snack, it's a reminder that adults have all the power. Kids want something; we say no.

What to do: When dealing with a ticked-off toddler, it pays to look for a constructive alternative that gives her some control over the situation
within reason. If pretzels are out as a snack, how about some apple slices or an early dinner?

For preschoolers, acknowledging the anger can be one of the surest ways to defuse it. "The biggest thing with my daughter is empathizing with her instead of saying, 'You shouldn't be angry, that's not a big deal,'" says Kathy Franklin of Santa Monica, California, mom of 5-year-old Kelsey and 2-year-old Tate. "So if she's really upset about getting the puzzle to work, I'll say, 'Wow, you're having a hard time with that puzzle,' and then I'll help her get it started."

At any age, being tired makes everything even worse. It sounds almost too basic, but if your child gets a good night's sleep, she's a lot less likely to fly off the handle if something doesn't go her way. Who among us doesn't turn into a cranky pants when she's overtired?