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Why Kids Misbehave

The fear factor

Even the mellowest child might misbehave or act out when he's scared. It's easy to forget that things we take for granted might be scary to a kid.

Rachel Sarah, of Berkeley, California, was excited when her then 4-year-old, Mae, was asked to be a flower girl in a family wedding, and Mae seemed thrilled, too. Until the wedding. "Once we were there, all the relatives wanted to hug her and pick her up. She screamed. She cried. I was furious and ashamed." After the wedding Sarah realized her daughter had just been scared. "She hadn't seen these relatives for over a year, a long time for someone that young. She didn't know who they were. I wish I'd shown more empathy."

What to do: Although it's tempting to pooh-pooh your child's fears, that often makes things worse. Instead:

Acknowledge the fear. Whatever is scaring your child is very real to him, and it's comforting for him to know you understand what he's going through. ∆ Help her find words. A child may have difficulty describing her emotions, but helping her do so is the first step in getting her to take charge of them. "There are a lot of people who are excited to see us  -- I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed, and you must be, too."

Make behavior expectations clear. Part of growing up is learning that we can't act on every feeling. When my 3-year-old defends bratty behavior by saying she's shy, I tell her it's fine to be shy  -- but she still has to be polite.

Counter with creativity. Create a "spray" to ward off fierce creatures of the night (in our house a "good monster" doll  -- funny-looking stuffed animal  -- scares away all the "bad monsters"), draw pictures together of the scary thing, or role-play being confident and unafraid.

We'll never be able to understand every reason our kids act up  -- and we'll never be able to prevent misbehavior completely. Every parent must develop her own spectrum of tolerance, for just knowing why a child is doing something doesn't always make it any less irritating at the time. But just as it's our child's job to keep pushing limits, to grow and learn, it's our job to keep setting limits, to keep him safe and guide him through the strange terrain of civilization. And if we can do so without losing our sanity, why, that's just icing on the cake.