Question:  My son is 4 years old. He is cheerful most of the time, especially when we are with others. However, sometimes he has mood swings, and starts shouting at us. For example, we were drawing together, and I made a mistake. Since he could not draw according to his wish, he shouted, "You don't know anything!" and grabbed my pencil away. How should we handle this type of behavior?

Polly Greenberg:  It’s so hard for us as parents to know when our child’s behavior is typical for a child that age, or whether it’s a little too much and needs our attention to smooth a rough edge, or whether the behavior is altogether off the charts so consultation with a child development specialist or child psychologist would be a wise idea. From what you’ve said, I can’t tell whether your son has wild mood swings, unrelated to the situation he’s in, or whether something—such as you making a “mistake” while drawing with him—provokes his wrath. I suspect it’s the latter.

Let’s assume that your son is a headstrong and cocky four-year-old, as many fours are. All young children believe that their parents are omniscient and omnipotent—that they see and know everything, and that they are all-powerful. Therefore, if you don’t draw perfectly, your son may be distressed by this glaring imperfection (smile); his reaction, for lack of a more socially skilled reaction, may be anger. Few young children see things on a continuum. They think in black and white. They see only extremes. So if you don’t know how to do everything (in this case, draw what your son wanted you to draw), “you don’t know anything.”

You wonder how to handle your son’s belligerent behavior. I would aim at teaching tolerance, recognition of feelings, and moderation. I might say, “I know lots of things, but I see you’re disappointed that I didn’t know how to draw this the way you wanted it. The way I drew it is a good way too. Please give the pen back to me. I think I’ll try again.” Or I might laugh at my drawing, saying, “Well, I really goofed up on this one, didn’t I! Nobody always does things perfectly, you know, even smart mothers like me. And don’t grab things from people; please give me my pen unless you want to trade pens. Do you want to take a turn trying to draw it? Or maybe I’ll try again.” Mildly but firmly you should let your son know that you’re not stupid, that there are many OK ways to do most things, and that grabbing isn’t all right.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.