Therapists, Behavioral Experts, and Psychologists Say:
Don't compare your kid with Chatty Cathy. "Many parents come in and say, 'All of my friends' children are speaking,' and worry because theirs aren't," says Steven Blaustein, Ph.D., a speech and language pathologist in New York City. Speech and language skills develop at different times for different kids. "And a number of factors go into it. I don't expect a two-year-old to master S, L, or R. Sure, some can, but that doesn't mean they should all be doing it," Blaustein says.
Taking scissors to her own bangs isn't the real problem. When your child acts defiantly—chopping off her hair, answering only to "Shirley"—a parent's instinct may be to home in on the behavior rather than the reason behind it. "In most cases, the behavior is usually just your child's attempt at solving a problem," says Brad Sachs, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Columbia, Maryland, and the author of The Good Enough Child (Harper Paperbacks, $15, amazon.com). "It is the best solution she's come up with." Instead of lashing out over the haircut, ask probing questions that get to the heart of how she's feeling. Maybe self-esteem is the issue, not an urge for a bob.
Don't fight his pint-size battles. "If your child talks about being bullied, don't immediately become the lioness, ready to confront the other child's parents. Let your child tell the story and simply say, 'Whoa!' or 'Wow!'" says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Penguin, $15, amazon.com). Then ask what the child did about it and suggest strategies. "Barring physical or deep psychological harm, don't do your child's bidding for him. If he doesn't learn from an early age how to resolve his conflicts, how is he going to fare later in life?" says Mogel.
Conquer molehills, not mountains. "Give your child little challenges so he sees himself as capable and effective," says Alison Frungillo, a therapist in Madison, New Jersey. "Let him tour the school before his first day or meet a counselor before camp. It builds self-confidence, especially in kids who suffer from separation anxiety."
Pick one activity, not seven. "Well-roundedness is not always a virtue," says Mel Levine, M.D., a cofounder of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which helps kids with learning difficulties. "A child trying to be good at everything may not discover who he is. The most successful people have highly specialized minds."
Be careful with labels. Common nicknames like "bookworm" and "jock" can carry negative connotations, bringing to mind a nerd and a kid who is valuable only on a field. "So much depends on word choice," says Mel Levine, who suggests using adjectives instead of nouns. "Say he's 'scholarly' or 'well coordinated.' You don't want anything to sound like it is wired into the kid. 'You are a blank,' and therefore beyond his control. It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy."