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Is It Just A Phase?

When a 2-year-old puts tiny fists on tiny hips, stomps his foot, and shouts, "No!" a wise parent just smiles and waits for the Terrible Twos to end. After all, it's just a normal stage of toddler behavior. But when an 8-year-old shrugs off a major science project, or an 11-year-old insists on excluding an unpopular classmate from a sleepover, it's harder for a parent to chalk it up to normal behavior. Sure, lots of kids go through phases of procrastination and cliquishness, and most grow out of it. But for those who don't, these traits can undermine successful adulthood. How do you know whether your child's behavior is just a stage or a sign of a serious problem?

Unfortunately, it's not easy, because the stages children go through during the elementary-school years are fuzzier than the developmental landmarks of infancy. Lacking a fixed set of age-related guidelines, you must make a series of judgment calls to decide whether what you are seeing is par-for-the course or not.

Sometimes, you can ease your mind by checking in with other families. If every kid in the kindergarten is suddenly tattling, you can probably rest assured that you're not rearing a professional stool pigeon. But as children get older, you can't assume that they'll simply grow out of an unpleasant behavior  -- even if all the other kids are doing it, too. "A problem may start at a certain age, but that doesn't mean it stops," says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO. "What brings it under control is parents' intervention. Parents need to deal with these things early."

Here are some common phases your child may soon be facing, and suggestions on the best ways to handle them.

Tattletale Tots

"Mommy, Claire's poking me again!" Tattling is one of the most annoying stages of childhood. But it may be some comfort to learn that it's normal  -- and even important  -- for children in kindergarten and first grade to be tattletales. "It's part of a child's moral development," says Henry Shapiro, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics. "As kids become aware of right and wrong, and what the rules are, they realize they're supposed to tell their teacher, or tell their parents, when someone does something wrong." So look at tattling as a coping mechanism. "A young child does not necessarily have a lot of conflict-resolution skills," Dr. Shapiro says. "You'd rather have him tell on somebody than get into a fight."

Thankfully, the tattling stage doesn't usually last more than a year or so. Once children realize that most situations aren't completely black-and-white, they start to develop more sophisticated strategies for dealing with squabbles. To speed this process along, you might encourage your little tattler to think about ways to negotiate minor disputes and express his feelings to others directly instead of always coming to you for immediate adult resolution.

The Age of Cliques

The issue of "fitting in" starts to crop up around second grade, and you may find your child feeling chronically rejected, or obsessed with being part of the "in group." "At this age, children are beginning to separate from parents, and to reach a new level of socialization with other children," notes Martin T. Stein, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Diego. Their yearning for conformity reflects the growing importance of peer groups in their lives, says Syd Brown, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Metropolitan Psychiatric Group in Bethesda, MD.

When peer pressure starts to kick in, it can leave one or two children socially isolated. While unattractive, this cliquishness does serve some developmental purpose. "It's the way many kids learn the rules and games of social interaction, the way they learn to find a peer group," says Dr. Stein. These school-yard cliques are in many ways a rough model of adult friendships. The difference is that at this age, the outcasts are often left standing alone beside the swing set. What can you do if your child falls victim to social Darwinism? Start by finding out whether your child is being neglected or actually rejected. In some cases, shy and quiet children are simply overlooked by peers. "When you ask the other kids whether Jimmy is being left out, they say, 'Who's Jimmy?'" Dr. Shapiro says. In that case, give your child some extra coaching in social skills, and try to get her paired up with one classmate.

Parents also need to find out whether their child is being excluded for good reason. At home, your child may seem merely energetic and enthusiastic. But in other children's homes, that may translate into out-of-control behavior. "Maybe the child doesn't know what to say or says the wrong thing. He's too aggressive or he starts crying. All of those are things a child needs parental support to deal with," says Dr. Shapiro. Talking to other parents can yield vital information, so drum up the courage to do so.

Overall, says Dr. Shapiro, remember that "a child who seems maladjusted may turn out to be a perfectly acceptable adult." For kids who are simply square pegs, parents can help by looking for square holes outside the school environment  -- perhaps an unusual sport or art class where your child can find some like-minded friends.

And remember that these school-yard cliques are notoriously fluid. Yesterday's sworn enemy may be tomorrow's best friend. Though that's incredibly confusing for parents, children usually take their shifting allegiances in stride.

Fashion Mania

Around third or fourth grade, the pressure to conform can become fierce, and parents may find themselves under siege to provide just the right pair of jeans or the socially acceptable jacket. But though it's painful for a parent to refuse an 8-year-old's heartbreaking plea for $100 sneakers, Brown says it's a bad idea to give in every time the classroom fashions change. "You have to set limits," he advises. Children need to understand that your financial resources aren't endless, and that your family standards prevail over playground chic. As a compromise, he suggests giving your child one or two "high-fashion" items for special occasions, and limiting the rest of her wardrobe to what suits her taste and your wallet.

It's important to address this issue early on, professor Christophersen says, because it's not likely to go away any time soon. The parent who folds under pressure from a third-grader can look forward to some major battles in a few years, when "everybody else" gets a new car as a 16th-birthday gift. If you're not planning to hand your teenager her own American Express card, it's a good idea to put the brakes on now. That will also help your child realize that the key to her acceptance is not just her fashion choices, but things like loyalty, kindness, and honesty.

Homework Hardship

Another major flash point for school-age children is homework, and the oppositional behavior that may begin as early as second grade. The reason: Homework offers children the chance to test the limits at home and school simultaneously. Those nightly struggles over spelling lists and math can leave kids and parents exhausted. But you don't want to let it turn your house into a battleground. How can you get your child on the right track to becoming a conscientious, responsible student as he heads into middle school and beyond?

Generally, children should do an average of ten minutes of homework per grade level each night. If your child can't complete it in a reasonable amount of time, check in with his teacher  -- her expectations may be unrealistic, or your child could have an undiagnosed learning disability.

But even for the most able child, homework requires an extraordinary set of skills that are still quite new to young scholars. The process of clearing off a desktop, finding supplies, and sitting down to work may seem simple to an adult, but it's a complex task for a child. "Parents want their child to do (homework) without any effort on the parents' part," says Christophersen. "In reality, parents need to help." So be prepared to give plenty of guidance on time management and organization. "The worst way to deal with the problem is criticism, nagging, and reprimand," Christophersen says. "It's extremely ineffective."

Instead, take action now to make homework a nightly priority for the whole family. "Create an hour of quiet time in the evening, with no phone calls and no TV," Christophersen advises. And make sure you're setting an example of industrious behavior where your kids can see it. You may know how hard you worked at the office today, but if you collapse in front of the television after dinner, don't be surprised when your children do the same.

Recognize, too, that as school-age children develop the ability to think logically, those flat rules that gave them a sense of security in early childhood no longer seem very satisfying. So don't simply announce that the TV will be turned off from 7:00 to 8:00 every night. Instead, sit down for a problem-solving session with your child. Ask her, for example, to estimate how much time she needs for homework each night, and discuss the importance of a peaceful work environment. You'll need to enforce the plan, but it's important to give your child some input.

Suddenly Swearing

It is both shocking and troubling to parents when, around fifth or sixth grade, the most appalling language starts tumbling out of those sweet little lips. "Toddlers often have smart mouths, but it gets better around age 5," Christophersen says. "Then it comes back around age 9"  -- catching many parents by surprise.

Rude talk is often a signal of approaching adolescence, as children struggle to develop their own sense of identity. However, that doesn't mean parents should take verbal abuse from their children. "You can achieve emotional separation without being rude," Christophersen says. "Obnoxiousness is not a stage children necessarily grow out of."

Instead of exploding when your son displays his new language skills at the dinner table, explain calmly why you don't want to hear those words, says Marlene DeVoe, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at St. Cloud State University. "You need to set up boundaries," she says. Christophersen had this problem when his daughter was a young teen. An ardent horseback rider, she had picked up a number of choice expressions from older male stable hands. While he wasn't crazy about her "potty mouth," he looked at the issue from her perspective: She didn't use inappropriate language at school or church; instead, she employed profanity as a way to fit in comfortably at the stables. So, on reflection, he had to admit her language wasn't really a problem, and let her make her own choice.

"Parents have to be willing to listen," DeVoe says. "That doesn't mean you have to accept ugly words or a snotty tone of voice; no child is ever too old for a much-deserved time-out." But you do need to hear what the child is trying to express with those rude comments, and respond firmly, calmly, and lovingly. "No matter how wonderful your child is, he'll still need some limits, if only to give him something to push against," she adds. "The challenge is to have those limits, and yet be open to listening to your child's point of view."