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From Biting to Whining

Many parents expect to have an easier time with their child once she turns 3. After all, a preschooler has more language and coping skills than she did as a toddler. Instead, Mom and Dad are often disappointed to find that new problems crop up (such as spouting hateful words) before old behaviors (like hitting) disappear entirely.

Yet what you perceive as naughtiness is usually developmentally appropriate, however obnoxious, so it's best to handle it with an understanding of what's behind your child's acting up. You'll be more likely to respond in a constructive way - and she'll be more likely to learn what's expected of her.

Here are some common little-kid misbehaviors and the best ways to keep them from becoming bad habits.


Biting & Hitting

Even kids as old as 4 or 5 can have trouble verbally expressing their feelings of anger and frustration. The result: They tend to lash out, especially when a situation becomes stressful. And since aggressive behavior usually guarantees an immediate response, they'll sometimes bite or hit in order to get attention.


What to Do


  • Calmly but firmly make it clear that hurting others is totally unacceptable: "No biting. Biting hurts. We use words to say we're angry."


  • Consider a time-out - a brief period of isolation can help your child regain control - and use the time to soothe his victim. Never spank or intimidate (either physically or verbally), but you can try withholding a privilege, such as taking away television time, instead of a time-out. And be sure to give plenty of "time-ins" throughout the day - by playing games, say - to help your child feel loved.


  • After his time-out, have him apologize to his friend.


  • When he's calmed down, explain that you understand his frustration and give him a vocabulary to express it. You might say, "You were angry, and that's why you hit Jason. But no more hitting! Next time, tell him, 'It makes me mad when you take my toys.'" Teach your child alternatives to get what he wants, such as "Please give my truck back now" or "You can play with it when I'm done."


  • Pay attention to the situations that provoke him to hit or bite, and then do your best to control the environment as much as possible. For example, if he's easily overstimulated, keep playdates under two hours.


    Listen to your child say "Sit here" or "I get the bear. You get the bunny" often enough and you may start to cringe. But what comes across as bossiness is just your child's greater awareness of her feelings and needs - as well as her unsophisticated use of directives. Usually, little ones become less demanding once they discover they have to balance their wishes with the desires of others if they expect to have (and keep!) their friends.


    What to Do


  • Be a role model. Your child will mimic your verbal exchanges with her, so every time you snap "Put your clothes on now!" you're implying that that tone is acceptable. To teach her to be more considerate of others, make requests rather than give commands: "Could you please wash your hands before dinner?"


  • Try some give-and-take. When you tell her it's time to put her toys away and she asks to finish her puzzle, prove that you're open to compromise by letting her complete it. Foster good manners by complimenting her when she speaks politely or shares.


  • Provide more appropriate words to use whenever you play with her: "Now it's your turn to serve the tea," "May I use the crayon now?" Help her see that listening to another person's ideas usually results in a win-win situation.

    Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D., is the author of four books on child rearing.


    Young children are just learning to distinguish right from wrong and fantasy from reality. Since a child doesn't understand that lying is wrong until he's at least 4, what sounds like a deliberate fabrication may be his vivid imagination. In addition, a preschooler is eager to please his parents. Thus, your child's desire to see himself as "good" and to avoid your displeasure can convince him that he couldn't have taken a cookie without your permission, even if he has crumbs on his face.


    What to Do


  • Never set your child up to tell lies. Don't ask, "Did you knock over this lamp while you were running?" because that will only prompt a denial. Instead, state the obvious: "My new lamp is broken. This is why we have a rule that says 'No running in the house.'"


  • Don't call your child a liar. Kids under 4 won't understand the implication but will grasp the label's pejorative nature.


  • Focus on finding solutions and clarifying what's appropriate behavior, not on placing blame. You might say something like "Coloring on the walls means a lot of cleanup work for me, so please help wipe up with this sponge. Next time, when you want to color, ask me for paper."


  • Try not to tempt your child. Don't leave such treats as cookies or candy within reach and then tell him not to touch them. And don't overpunish him (by, say, withholding dessert for a week) for telling a lie. This will only provoke him to come up with something more sophisticated in an effort to avoid your anger.


  • When he answers honestly about something he's done wrong, praise him for his truthfulness, fix the problem together, and reward him by forgoing punishment. Be as truthful as you can with your child: Don't tell him the shot won't hurt, for example, or that there aren't any cookies in the house when you have a secret stash hidden in the cupboard.

    Hateful Words

    When your child blurts out "I hate you!" it means she's tired and overwhelmed. She's simply striking out at the nearest target and in the only way she knows how, and she's probably just as upset about her outburst as you are.


    What to Do


  • Explain as calmly as you can that you understand she hates your decision but that you expect her to say she's angry without being disrespectful. Accept her intense feelings: "I know you want to play longer and you're upset that we have to go now."


  • Don't act sad or say how hurt you are. Overreaction can teach her that using hateful language is an effective way to manipulate you.


  • Help your child understand that you can be upset with her behavior and still love her: Whenever you discipline, keep your focus on the unacceptable behavior. For example, never make disparaging remarks, such as "I'm so ashamed of you."


    Despite your best intentions, a child can quickly learn that a "no" isn't always final and can sometimes be turned into a "yes" if he just pleads long enough.


    What to Do


  • Be consistent when you say no. That way, your child won't be confused about whether you might mean "maybe." You can add, "However many times you ask, the answer will still be 'no.'" The first few times you try this tactic, your child may figure he has to beg longer to make his point. Don't waver. Pretty soon, your unchanging responses will pay off.


  • Even when you have to refuse his request, you can acknowledge his disappointment. Say, "I know you like puppets and you'd have fun playing with that one."


  • Suggest putting the desired item on a wish list for an upcoming birthday or holiday. Or propose a reasonable compromise that you feel you can grant: "We can't go to the pool today, but I can take you swimming tomorrow afternoon" or "No, I can't buy that board game, but you can certainly choose a new video to watch tonight." If he keeps pleading for the item, you can add, "Sounds like you've decided you'd rather get nothing."

    In time, your child will gradually outgrow these behaviors - if you respond to them with love, understanding, and firm limits. And you'll be proud to see how cooperative he can be with the people around him.

    Readers Share What Works


    Solution: Cite the Golden Rule.

    His teachers told me that William, 4, tended to bite the other kids when he wrestled with them. I explained to him that biting hurts and asked him how he'd like it if someone did that to him. That put it into perspective.


     - Lilia Lopez, Coral Gables, FL



    Solution: Give a warning.

    My 5-year-old, Samantha, sometimes hits me or my husband when she gets very frustrated. We calm her down by explaining that if she doesn't stop, she'll lose privileges, such as having a playdate or watching television.


     - Rachel Wexler, Rochester, NY



    Solution: Talk it out.

    Alison, 2, is constantly ordering her older brother and me around. Making sure we have eye contact while I talk, I tell her she's not being kind and that it's important that we treat each other with respect.


     - Margie Germagian, Hudson, MA


    Pushiness With Playmates

    Solution: Encourage team spirit.

    If Lauren, 6, does something with a group of kids at school, she tends to take over. We tell her she has to let her classmates have a say - this is part of being a team player - and that other kids may not want to play with her if she's too bossy.


     - Joanna Le Vu, Olathe, KS


    Lying to get out of chores

    Solution: Put up a sticker chart.

    When I'd ask my 4/-year-old, Hayden, whether he'd cleaned his room, he'd say yes when he clearly hadn't. So we created a chart: If he does his chores, he gets a sticker, and when he gets a certain number, I buy him a Hot Wheels car.


     - Kirsten Ackmann, Rockford, IL



    Solution: Ask to hear it again.

    When my 3-year-old son, Walker, whines about his younger brother taking his toys, I tell him my ears don't understand that tone and that if he speaks clearly, then I'll know what he wants.


     - Lashea Russell, California, MD

     - Interviews by Deborah A. Desanto

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