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Parents wonder how to help sister with her son's behavior

DEAR AMY: My wife and I have two wonderful kids. Our 5-year-old daughter is polite, well-mannered, outgoing and uncommonly nice. Our 18-month-old son is shaping up in a similar vein. Neither child is prone to tantrums or chronic negative behaviors. I believe this is because we stress the importance of good behavior and hold them accountable for their actions. My wife's sister recently relocated to our area. She has a son, who is almost 3, and an infant daughter. Her son has been acting out quite a bit. I am convinced their parenting is part of the problem. They are very permissive and give empty threats. If he doesn't get his way, he throws a fit, and they give him what he wants. They are growing tired of this pattern, and my nephew's behavior is getting worse. My sister-in-law has been reading stacks of books, but hasn't been able to translate her learning into action. My wife and I struggle with how to respond to her sister's growing concerns. We can be very helpful in showing them some strategies that will help, but this can be perceived as insensitive, meddlesome and unwelcome. Should we talk to them about it -- or be unconditionally supportive without the slightest hint of criticism?

-- Perplexed

DEAR PERPLEXED: Talk to them about it and be unconditionally supportive and uncritical. This is not a mutually exclusive concept. Tell them, "You can turn this around. Do you want to hear some of the things that have worked for us?"

I highly recommend the work of Jo Frost, the "Supernanny." Frost enters households like your sister-in-law's, diagnoses the family dynamic and then offers sound and practical fixes. If you agree with her approach, you might give this couple a DVD collection of her TV show.

I suggest being as tolerant, loving and positive as possible with the boy. Punishment will not be as powerful as tons of TLC, confident parenting, positive reinforcement and, yes -- an occasional brief "timeout."

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