Q.My daughter, who will soon turn 4, has started acting like she is 2 1/2.

Is there any way we can shape her behavior -- which is pretty miserable -- or change our reaction to it?

Getting dressed and out of the house in the morning is awful. We don't give her the choice of staying home or going out, but we do let her decide what to wear and we let her dress herself, too. It's a lengthy process but we want to encourage her autonomy.

She picks out her clothes the night before but won't put them on the next day because they're "too tight." She can't decide what she wants for breakfast either, and she won't use the potty when she gets up. Instead she waits until we're heading out the door, then has to get undressed to use it.

She also hems and haws, whines and stalls about everything, until our patience gives way. More than once we've said, "That's it, you are wearing this!" and then we've left with her crying in her car seat.

By the time we get where we're going, she is always in a delightful mood, but the emotional battles stay with my husband and me all day. We really don't want to start out in a frazzle.

Our daughter knows how to get our goat, that's for sure, and maybe that's what this is all about. Is she fighting for control? Is there anything we can do about that? And when will this phase be over?

A.Transitions from sleep to wakefulness and home to school can be hard for many preschoolers, especially around 2 1/2, 3 1/2 and 4 1/2.

These are the watersheds of early childhood, and they often make a child fall apart. This is nothing to worry about. Your daughter's behavior has to break up before it can come together in new and stronger ways -- a passage in the maturation process that takes about three to six months to complete.

In the meantime, your daughter will modify her behavior if you can adjust your own.

It's great to encourage her to be self-sufficient, but don't let her push her limits just for the sake of pushing them. If you do that, she will never know what her limits really are and she will begin to feel uncertain and at times quite anxious. In response, she will try to control everything around her, because that's what anxious people do to feel safe. Her dawdling is a sign of that -- as well as a sign of the thrill she gets when she's in charge.

There are better ways to handle your daughter's procrastination than to nag and nag until you explode and then to feel bothered the rest of the day. Instead, set your kitchen timer and tell your daughter that good old Mr. Buzzer says that she must potty -- or get dressed or be ready for breakfast -- in five minutes. This gambit usually works, because it's a great face-saver. At this age, a child would rather give in to a timer than a parent.

If you don't have a timer, cut your nag level way down. You'll be more effective if you only nag your daughter two or three times -- instead of five or 10 -- and then put her on the potty yourself; pick out her outfit for school, dress her or pour her cereal. She may cry piteously at the injustice of it all, but if you don't get sucked into an argument and if you speak to her in a firm, businesslike, no-nonsense voice, she should stop dithering and dawdling in a week or so.

To find other ideas, check out these four helpful books: "Unplugging Power Struggles," by Jan Faull (Parenting Press; $13.95); "How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!" by Sal Severe (Putnam; $12.95); "How to Set Limits," by Elizabeth C. Vinton (NTC; $14.95) and that all-time favorite, "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk," by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Morrow; $12.95).

Questions? Send to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003 or to advice@margueritekelly.com.