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Why Kids Misbehave

Running on empty

Surprise! Just like you and me, when kids are tired, hungry, or not feeling well, they get cranky and irritable. But unlike you and me, they don't have the skills to contextualize and control those emotions. The result: irrational intransigence, disproportionate displeasure, and monstrous meltdowns.

"A tired child is almost not a child but a monster just waiting to spoil your plans," says Lori Bulloch of North Salt Lake, Utah, mom of Nathan, 4, Richard, 2, and Benson, 4 months. "It's worth it for me to arrange my schedule around naptimes. A rested child is simply a different child."

She's right. Kids will, finally, learn to control themselves, but until age 5 or so they're utterly incapable of doing that on a regular basis. Expecting your toddler to stand in line at the grocery store and heed your command to stop whining for those cookies may require more forbearance than she can muster when it's been a few hours since she last put food in her tiny tummy. "A hungry child's brain just can't process that dinner is coming soon, as opposed to now," says Sarah Airhart, founder of the Community School of West Seattle in Seattle, and mother of Emma, 8, and Harriette, 4.

What to do: When it comes to avoiding sleep- or food-deficit-induced mania, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of tears. If your little princess turns into something much darker if she misses her nap, schedule around it. And of course, try to borrow your parenting mantra from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. It's smart to stockpile extra snacks and small, tidy activities in your purse and glove compartment.

On those inevitable days things fall apart and you're beyond prevention?

Go to primal needs. "Offer them food and water if you have them, and then make a choice: Wait it out or go home," says Airhart.

Stay calm and reassuring. Your agitation will only fuel the fire of discontent. (The fact that this kind of misbehavior seems to favor public places makes this that much harder.)

Provide comfort. Sometimes all it takes to convert a tantrum into sleepy sniffles is a big hug and a few "there, theres." Chances are your child doesn't really know why he's upset, and a little empathy is all he needs.

Offer hope. When my daughter freaks out in the grocery-store line, I calm both of us by imagining out loud how nice it will be to get home.

Don't be intimidated by disapproving looks. When I respond to my daughter in public, I do so just loud enough for others to hear: "Waiting is hard! We've been doing errands all morning  -- let's go home after this!" It's amazing how many kind looks I get with that simple explanation. As soon as I realize most people are sympathetic rather than judging me, I feel great relief, which helps me pull it together even if my daughter can't.