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Ask Dr. Sears: A Sweet Child Turned Sour

Q. My 4-year-old daughter, who's normally a sweet and loving child, has been acting mean to her 2 ½ -year-old best friend. They usually play quite well together, but ever since she started preschool this year, she's been yelling at him and bossing him around. Could preschool be the cause, or is she just going through a phase?

As preschoolers progress from the dependency of infancy to the greater independence of childhood, they often go through a bossy phase. Ordering around a younger child is one way they develop their newfound self-sufficiency. Annoying as it is, this phase is a normal part of growing up and should be regarded as such. Any dictatorial tendencies that go along with it, however, need to be discouraged. It's up to you to provide some much-needed parental guidance. Here's how:


Track the trigger. Whenever you notice a sudden change in your child's behavior, take stock of recent changes in her environment, such as a move or a family upset. In your situation, one of the triggers could be starting preschool. Four- and 5-year-olds are very impressionable, and are figuring out what behavior is common and acceptable. If your daughter is surrounded by a group of kids who are insensitive, bossy, and downright mean to one another, she may be getting the message that this is the way kids should interact.

The "we" principle. There are two ways to handle peer-influenced misbehavior. One way is to simply let your child loose in "the jungle": Let her experience real life and learn for herself what type of behavior is right or wrong. The other way calls for greater parental intervention. I strongly disagree with the "law of the jungle" approach to discipline. I believe children need to be taught normal and expected behavior, and this should start in the home. Using what I call the "we" principle, say to your daughter: "This is how we act..." This is how we talk..." "This is how we treat our friends..." Revisit the "we" principle as often as necessary. It may take 20 times beforel she understands that kindness rather than meanness is the expected norm -- but eventually it will sink in. I also suggest that you spend a few hours at her preschool to observe the behavioral dynamics of the other children. If you can confirm that she's continually exposed to unkind or bossy kids, you might consider changing her school environment.

Model kindness. One of the most important qualities to instill in your child is empathy. A technique we frequently employed in our family was to ask our kids: "How would you feel if...?" The next time your daughter is playing with her friend and she acts bossy or mean, take her aside and say: "How would you feel if an older friend were mean to you?" You can also try play acting. Imitate your child being bossy, and then ask her how she feels when you order her around. Once she realizes how bad she feels when someone is mean or bossy to her, she'll get the point.

Set her up to be sweet. When she's playing with her little friend, help them play kindness games. Set up the scenario: "You be the doctor and your friend is the patient. Your friend has an 'owie' and you can make it better." Above all, remember that your goal is to help her realize that it's so much nicer to be kind to others.