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Reality Check: Problem Child

Q. My 4-year-old daughter's strong-willed personality pushes all my buttons. What do you do when you love, but don't get along with, your own child?

When my daughter, Madeline, was born, instead of crying she stared intently, almost accusingly, at the faces in the delivery room. "Oh boy, you're in trouble," said our nurse-midwife -- and I was.

All moms have moments (days, weeks, years...) when nearly everything their child does seems to grate on their nerves. Even those children who don't have a "difficult" temperament begin life like cave people whom we must civilize and guide without crushing their spirits in the process. Through the inevitable clashes, you'll need to remind your child often that you love and respect her, even though the two of you don't always get along.

Try to remind yourself that some of the very traits that make her hard to deal with at age 4 -- strong will, sensitivity, persistence -- will eventually serve her well. You might also want to find a few ways to compliment your daughter's personality. In a much calmer moment when you can afford a few minutes to let her play a little longer with a toy or finish up a craft, you might say, "Wow, when you start working on a project you don't give up until it's done." Or at the end of a nasty power struggle, you could admit, "You're not allowed to yell at me, but I like that you stick up for yourself." I also used to declare "You're Not the Boss of Me" times, when Madeline could tell me what to do (within reason) and I had to comply.

The secret to living with a child who happens to push your buttons lies in accepting that she isn't driving you crazy on purpose. This is just who she is. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, once said to me, " This is the time to discover who she is and teach her to respect herself and others." Constant harmony may not be possible. But stepping back and not taking everything Miss Contrary does so personally is. And it can have a mellowing effect on both of you.