08/25/2012 10:45 am ET

Ask The Parent Coach: How To Stop Your Preschooler From Name-Calling

Dear Susan,

When my 3-year-old is angry or frustrated with me, which is pretty often these days, she calls me names like "stupid poo-poo head." I have been telling her that we don't say mean things in our family -- and I even tried sending her to her room -- but the behavior isn't stopping. What should I do?

Sick of the Name Game

Dear Sick of the Name Game,

The first time your 3-year-old calls you "poo-poo head," you may think it's kind of cute. You might even repeat the story to grandma or share it with friends over a cup of coffee. But if the behavior continues, it can become downright upsetting. We want our children to respect us, and when they start calling us names, we may turn to threats, scoldings and ultimatums -- all in an effort to get them to stop. Here's my advice for defusing your situation as quickly and painlessly as possible:

1. The best response takes the fun out of name-calling. When children call their parents names, they're conducting an experiment. It's as though they are thinking, I heard so-and-so say this and a lot of exciting things happened. I wonder what will happen if I say the same thing? Big reactions produce a rush of powerful feelings for a young child, so do your best to make it a non-issue by simply saying, “I don't like that word. Please don't use it.”

2. Help your child find the language to explain what she's feeling. “You really wanted more cookies; they taste yummy. You're mad that mommy isn't letting you have them.”

3. Offer her a physical outlet; let her stamp her feet or hit a pillow when she's upset. It's important to help children learn that anger is normal, and that there are ways they can safely express strong feelings when they bubble up.

4. Don't laugh. It may be hard to avoid erupting into giggles when your child calls you a funny name, but remember, children will do anything to elicit laughter and attention from their parents. Do your best to maintain a poker face.

5. Acknowledge your child's need for independence. Help your youngster feel more empowered by allowing her to choose which shoes to wear, or what she has for snack time. When children are constantly being told what to do, they are more likely to try to exert some sense of power with behaviors like name-calling.

6. Don't reward name-calling by caving to a child's demands. If you refuse to engage in a power struggle, your daughter will learn that calling you names doesn't get her what she wants.

7. Try saying “Ouch!” Some parents find it effective to use this simple phrase to let their children know that they have crossed the line. It sends a brief message in a neutral way that can have a real impact because it is delivered without a lot of words that a child might otherwise tune out. (This can work with adults, too!)

8. Be mindful of how your child hears you speaking to others when you're upset. Does your daughter hear you using mean words when you're hurt or angry? Do the significant people in her life routinely call one another names when they're mad?

Most children try name-calling when they feel hurt or out of control. The behavior isn't even exclusive to humans; Koko, the sign-language proficient gorilla, once signed “You dirty bad toilet!” at her trainer, Penny -- the closest thing she had to a mother. She had deduced that this was the “dirtiest” phrase in her repertoire she could use to convey her frustration. When your child shifts into a name-calling phase, do your best to manage your reactions while helping her learn healthy ways to express the feelings that are part and parcel of childhood -- and you'll ensure her bad behavior doesn't turn into a pattern.

Yours in parenting support,

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Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.