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Is She Really Sorry?

Q. My 3-year-old daughter is well-behaved most of the time, but sometimes she acts up. I'm afraid, however, that she isn't always aware that what she's done is wrong. For example, last week she was mean to her grandma and I sent her to her room. Later, she seemed almost excited to tell her daddy what she'd done. Can a 3-year-old be remorseful?

A. Probably not. Young children may have a general understanding of their actions, but not really comprehend the full significance of what they have done. Three-year-olds are just beginning to identify their emotions, label them correctly and act out their feelings in socially appropriate ways. It will be a few years before they can make the leap to understanding the feelings of others.

Preschoolers gather clues about what's right and wrong by watching our responses to their behavior. Your daughter will also gauge the seriousness of a situation by what you do. For example, if you punish her by telling her to go to her bedroom which is full of wonderful books to read and toys to play with, she may not understand she's done something wrong. However, if you tell her to immediately turn off her favorite television program because of her behavior, she'll probably get your point.

But you need to go farther than punishment because that only says to a child, "You did something wrong." Take the next step and teach your child what right behavior looks like.

For example in this situation, your could sit down with your daughter and ask her: "What would be a nice way to talk with Grandma? What are some things you might talk about? Then just before Grandma's next visit, remind her of what you talked about. Use simple language so your child clearly understands: "It makes me happy when you talk nicely to Grandma, because I love her very much. It makes Grandma feel good, too. When we have a good time together, she'll want to come back and visit us."

By talking about what's appropriate ahead of time, you can give your daughter a clear picture of what kind of behavior you expect from her.

Dealing with Divorce

Q. My 9-year-old has been struggling to deal with my divorce from his mother. I can't get him to open up and share his feelings with me, yet I know he's hurting. What can I do?

A. A divorce can be difficult for any child. Kids often harbor feelings of resentment or even blame toward their parents, so it's natural that your child is hesitant to share his feelings with you. A child's emotional response to a divorce varies with age and children your son's age tend to become angry. I was 12 years old when my mom was diagnosed with cancer and I was angry she was going to leave me before I had even grown up. My sense of loss at that time was similar to what many kids experience when their parents divorce.

When parents divorce, kids often feel helpless and scared. Everything in their world has changed and they're not sure who or what they can trust. You can help your child gradually rebuild his trust in people and relationships by keeping the lines of honest communication open between the two of you. The best way to do this is for you to make a real effort to talk with your son. Set aside time each day to talk about your own feelings with your son. Perhaps your boss paid you a compliment that made you feel great. Or maybe you were frustrated by a project you were working on. Be as specific as possible when describing your feelings. When your child sees you talk very openly about your emotions, he'll begin to realize that it's okay to talk about what he's feeling, too.

You also need to prepare yourself for what your child might say. If he is indeed feeling anger or resentment toward you, it will be painful for you. But it's essential that you allow him to respectfully tell you how he feels. He'll only trust you with his feelings if he believes you can handle them. If your child says, "I feel guilty, like maybe I caused your divorce," listen to his words and accept his feelings. Try not to dismiss his feelings or tell him to change them. Instead, talk about why he might feel that way. Encourage him to recall specific incidents, then talk about those feelings. Offer your reassurance that he was not the cause of your marital problems.

Some children find it easier to talk with peers than adults. If your son continues to keep his feelings to himself, check to see if his school, your church or family counselor offers group discussions for children in transition. What's important is that your child identify his feelings, express his emotions in acceptable ways, then learn to cope with those feelings.

Even if your child isn't quite ready to talk with you, remind him that God will listen to whatever is on his heart. You might suggest he start a prayer journal where he can write down things he's praying about, thoughts he wants to share with God and anything else he likes. Kids at this age often want to take a physical action to solve a problem and a journal can be extremely helpful in the process of identifying and working through emotions.

Throughout this transition time, do all you can to show your son that you love him. Divorce can often shake up a child's sense of security. Your son needs to know that your love for him is unchanged by the divorce.

Also remember to cover your child in prayer. Ask that God place people in your child's path every day who can help him work through his feelings.

Battling Back Talk

Q. My 7-year-old daughter loves to test me. Lately, whenever I ask her to do something, she says, "No," or, "I don't want to." How can I stop this back talk?

A. You used the correct description of your daughters' behavior: she is "testing." She's testing your authority and trying out her own independence at the same time. In one way this is a good sign: your daughter feels your relationship is so strong that she can experiment with new levels of intensity and different actions. She is confident that you'll always love her.

However, this doesn't mean her behavior is acceptable. It's important that you set some ground rules now before she enters the middle school and teen years. Here are four strategies you might try:

1. Use positive "I" language. Tell her how you feel about a situation, and ask her to tell you how she feels. Explain how her actions affect you and why. "When you slam a door in my face, I feel angry, because I can't see you when I talk with you."

2. Keep discussions short and to the point. Don't allow a simple request to disintegrate into a major argument, which can happen easily now that your daughter has learned how to push your emotional "hot buttons." If she needs to put dirty clothes in the hamper, focus on that; try not to add other elements to the conversation. If you want her to stop leaving her shoes in the living room, make that a separate discussion.

3. Concentrate on what's really important. Ask yourself, "Will this matter a year from now?" If the answer is no, drop it.

4. State the rule. This will be extremely important as your daughter moves through the "It's not fair" phase. For example, you might want to remind your daughter of some of your family rules so she doesn't feel she's being singled out for punishment.

By enforcing family rules, you're actually helping your daughter to become more confident and independent. Soon she'll realize that back talk isn't very productive. With your guidance, she'll learn to talk about problems, share ideas and make smart decision.

Mary Manz Simon is an author, speaker and practical parenting specialist. "Front Porch Parenting," her daily radio program, airs on almost 200 stations.

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