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Taming Trouble: Discipline and Manners for Your Preschooler

7 tips for parents to help preschoolers master manners.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

When her 4-year-old daughter is acting sassy or disrespectful, Angela Mackey, a mother of three in Fort Smith, Ark., reminds herself to take a deep breath. She knows that if she yells, then her daughter "is being met with disrespect as well."

You have to accept a certain amount of drama queen behavior, says Gary Unruh, MSW LCSW, family mental health counselor in Colorado Springs, Colo., and author of Unleashing the Power of Parental Love.

Preschoolers (ages 3-5) are reveling in their newfound independence. "Accept that a preschooler will say 'no' a lot," Unruh says. "It's not disrespectful. It's part of learning who they are."

There are many times a child's discovery process can seem at odds with a parent's job. Like when she's hoarding toys on a play date, kicking and screaming to protest bedtime, or having a meltdown in the middle of a supermarket.

So how can you encourage your child's social development while curbing bad behavior? Here's your to-do list for taming preschoolers without losing your sanity.

No. 1: Set realistic expectations.

Know your child's developmental stage. As a parent, you may want your child to share his toys with friends, sit still during church and say "please" and "thank you." But you have to consider what's age appropriate when it comes to behavior -- and gauge your expectations accordingly.

"Kids are not born with social skills," says Ari Brown, MD, an Austin, Texas pediatrician and author of Toddler 411. "We're born with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality."

If you understand where your child falls on the developmental milestone chart, you will feel less frustrated when your child can't sit still for five minutes.

And keep in mind that there's a lot of variability in maturation from one child to the next. Although some kids are done with temper tantrums at age 3, others aren't done at age 5

No. 2: Be patient.

Patience is key, Brown says. She often hears parents complaining about how they tried a discipline strategy, like timeout, again and again, but it didn't work.

"You are planting the seeds of discipline," she says. "Don't expect a tree to grow overnight."

Say, for example, you don't want your child digging up plants in the garden. Understand that it takes time for your child to test out if you really mean it. Then it takes awhile to understand why it's a bad idea.

"Just because you say it's a bad idea doesn't mean they necessarily believe you," she says. "So sometimes they just have to play out the necessary consequence for the behavior."

Some behaviors may go away within a matter of days or weeks, but others may take longer to change.

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