Testing Their Limits
Kids this age are stuck in a kind of emotional limbo, between a toddlerlike self-centeredness and a growing empathy for others. It's true their language skills are more sophisticated, and they know how to express themselves -- and how to manipulate adults -- more effectively, but they struggle with some of the same issues younger kids do, including wanting to do things they aren't able to or not knowing how to act on their own behalf without being aggressive.
"Children experiment with different behaviors. One day they may show that they're mad by using their words; another day they may do it by knocking something off the table," says Dr. Shapiro. And the more attention they get for acting badly, the more they're likely to continue to do it.
Set aside one-on-one time Just like their younger sibs, 3- to 5-year-olds are prone to fits when their basic needs aren't met. A universal case in point: It's normal for kids in preschool or daycare to control their temper there -- where they may not know how much they can get away with -- and to let loose once they get home, where they know they're unconditionally loved. Dr. Shapiro advises immunizing a preschooler against such routine outbursts by setting aside about 20 minutes a couple of times a day to get down on the floor and play with him. What else helps? Give him the attention he craves by noticing his good behavior whenever possible.
Continue to stress words You can also finally take advantage of your child's growing facility with language to teach him self-control. So if you've been lackadaisical about this, really emphasize the "use your words" approach when conflicts arise. Kids should start to be able to tell another child that they want the truck or that they need an adult to help them with something rather than resort to hitting.
Give him a say Sometimes a practical solution to common triggers will head off an explosion. Ellen De Money, a mother of three in Boulder, CO, lets her kids decide between two options. "Jordan, my four-year-old, will often get angry over having to share a toy with his brothers," she says. "So I tell him they must either put the toy away or use the timer. Then each of them can play with the toy for four minutes."