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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?


Do you get a scene worthy of 19th-century tragic opera when it's time to put coats on and go to preschool? Does your child pitch a fit when it's time to dismount the jungle gym? You may know you need to get home for dinner, but even the most reasonable request can feel like an ambush to your child if you spring it on him out of the blue.

What to do: Give your child a five-minute and a one-minute warning that something's going to happen. And then stick to it, says Julie Dollinger, M.D., a pediatrician in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Lauren Owensby, a mom of six in Great Falls, Virginia, uses a kind of advance-warning system to keep tempers in check. Her kids range in age from 12 weeks to 12 years, and she makes sure she always talks them through an action before she does it.

"Instead of telling one of my kids something while I'm cleaning up, I've learned to stop, look them in the eyes, explain what's going on, and get an acknowledgment that they've heard my explanation," she says. "For example, if my daughter is watching Little Einsteins and I need to brush her hair, I don't just start combing it. I tell her, 'I'm going to brush your hair,' and make sure she's understood what I'm going to do. That way she doesn't fight me off, and we get out of the house on time."

Changes in routine
A move or a new baby sib can make a little kid feel insecure, jealous, or ignored, emotions that often express themselves in the behaviors we associate with anger, like screaming and hitting.

Sometimes the change is barely noticeable  -- at least to a grown-up. At 3 years old and 19 months, Mason and Charlie Tate have a hard time when their dad, who's a lawyer, has to put in extra hours and arrives home long after their bedtime. "Charlie doesn't have the verbal skills  -- he just cries," their mom, Allison, of Orlando, Florida, says. "Mason yells and then cries and says, 'I miss Daddy.'"

What to do: For everyday changes in routine, try to keep your child busy. "I plan activities like a trip to Grandma's house when I know my husband will be working late," says Tate.

To make a new event more concrete to your child, create a short picture book together, says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If he's going to a new daycare, say, have a photo of the old one on the first page of the book and the new one on the second. Your child can say goodbye to the old childcare center, and then flip the page and say hi to the new one.

Siblings (or other kids)

Expect to see even more challenging behavior when your child begins to interact more with his peers or a newly mobile baby sib. "As young kids move from parallel play to cooperative play, there's a lot of testing of boundaries," says Dr. Dollinger. The result? Tears and tantrums stemming from an increasingly complex emotional and social life.

A recurring scenario from our playroom: Lela likes to make skyscrapers out of Legos. Finn likes to play wrecking crew and knock them down. Then Lela retaliates by smacking Finn with a fistful of Legos. Screaming (theirs, mine) ensues.

What to do: Divide and conquer. Give each kid a space or project of his own. When her two children were younger, Carlsson-Paige turned a small closet off the kitchen into a miniature, baby-brother-proof space for her older son so he could draw in peace.

If that fails and a blowup does occur, don't automatically blame the oldest child; the younger sib also needs to learn limits. "If Charlie bites Mason, I don't say it's okay because he doesn't know any better," says Allison Tate of her two sons. "I tell Charlie no and then explain to Mason that even though Charlie doesn't always understand what we say, it's not okay when he bites."

With your older troublemaker, reframe the situation. Instead of sending him to time-out, tell him you're putting him in a safe, calm place to regroup, say experts.

And don't stint on the praise when he manages to pull himself together. After Lela's been disciplined for hitting her brother, I've learned how positive reinforcement  -- taking the focus off a Lego smackdown and putting it on how well she's moved past it  -- can make the next time easier for all of us.

Your anger
Helping your child learn how to control her temper begins with your behavior. You're the role model. That's why it's a mistake to get too emotional. It's bad for your blood pressure and worse for your relationship with your child. For kids, angry adults are "very scary," says Carlsson-Paige. "We're very big, and we're loud, and that makes them feel insecure and even more out of control."

And don't forget that if you yell when you're mad, you're just sending the message that it's okay to behave that way, no matter what you may be telling your kids.

What to do: Breathe, even if you feel like you're about to erupt. You can follow the STAR strategy  -- Stop, Take a breath, And Relax  -- that Allison Tate says she learned from Mason's preschool teacher.

Of course, when you're faced with a raging toddler or preschooler, it can be hard to get in touch with anything resembling Zen-like calm, no matter how many deep breaths you take. David Theis, a dad of two in Washington, DC, apologizes to his daughters, ages 3 years and 15 months, if he feels he's gone over that edge. His wife, Susan, sometimes gives herself a time-out and goes to sit on the bottom step  -- the family's version of the uncooperative chair  -- for a minute or two to calm down.

In Lauren Owensby's household, humor helps defuse situations that might otherwise escalate into tantrums  -- hers and her kids'. "When my toddler doesn't want to sit in her car seat, I pick her up, try putting her in upside down and say, 'Like this? No!' Then I put her in sideways: 'Like this? No!' Then I put her in backward and say 'Like this? No!' After three or four times of this silliness, she listens up, and it becomes hilarious."

So the next time Finn pulls The Plank maneuver when I'm struggling to get him into his car seat, I'm going to take a deep breath and try to remember that he's just doing what he's supposed to be doing at his age. Now if I could only figure out how to buckle him in there while he's upside down.

Jennifer Howard, a writer living in Washington, DC, is a contributor to the anthology DC Noir.