Toddlers and self-control

Parenting your toddler may seem like an unequal relationship where the need for self-control is all on one side – yours. It’s true that you’re the one who has to be the grown-up of the two of you, even on days where all you want is a little nap. Beneath the surface, though, Baby is working on developing their very own self-control. The only problem is that they probably won’t be able to access theirs for a few more years.

Self-control: the timeline

A survey conducted by nonprofit Zero to Three found that parents tend to overestimate toddlers’ ability to control their actions based on their emotions. Toddlers may be able to understand the language surrounding not being allowed to do something, but that doesn’t mean they can actually stop themselves. A two-year-old may be able to agree to, “Play nicely, no hitting,” but if their playmate makes a grab for a toy in their grasp-range, all bets are off.

This is because the part of the brain responsible for impulse-control is still growing. Most toddlers won’t have much of an ability to control themselves until between 3.5 and 4 years old, and even then, once the ability for self-control is present, there’s still the challenge of learning how and when to use it. Parents can still encourage self-control starting much younger, though, by modeling positive behavior and by laying the groundwork for positive behavior patterns later.

Ways to encourage self-control

  • Don’t be afraid of praise: Praise is one of the best ways to encourage children to repeat actions you approve of – even if they hasn&;t mastered a skill yet, praising them for trying is a great way to encourage them to keep trying. Toddlers respond well to attention, and if they feel like they’re not getting the positive attention they crave, they may act out as a way of getting negative attention, so praise can be a great way to preemptively discourage trouble, too.
  • Talk about their feelings: One of the reasons toddlers lash out is because it’s their only way of expressing themselves. Learning self-control might help hold some of those feelings back, but having a positive outlet to express them instead can go a long way. Talking to Baby when they are upset, and naming the things they might be feeling is a great way of both acknowledging their feelings and, at the same time, giving them the language to talk about them.
  • Get started early: In the early years before toddlers have much self-control, redirection and distraction can be some of the best ways to stop them from doing things they shouldn’t, whether those things are dangerous, like running into the driveway from the yard, or unkind, like striking out at the family pet. It’s also important to let them know that those things aren’t okay, though. Setting that limit might start just by telling them not to do whatever it is they isn’t supposed to do, and as they get closer to 2 years old, might be reinforced by brief time-outs, if that fits your family’s discipline style. This way, as Baby’s self-control grows, they know what the limits of their world are supposed to be.
  • Make it a game: Games are a great way to introduce toddlers to new concepts in a fun, non-threatening way. Games can teach patience, turn-taking, and other ways that self-control is needed in day-to-day life. Red Light, Green Light is a great active, outside game, and taking turns on the swing or slide is an excellent way to practice turn-taking. Playing games like catch or pass with a ball is even better, since they prove how turn-taking and sharing can add to the fun of playing. Finally, playing imaginative or pretend games, like acting out scenes with stuffed animals, can be a great way to practice scripts about sharing, and about venting emotions in healthy ways.
  • Shape the environment: There are a lot of factors that play into how toddlers respond to limits and challenges, but two of the big ones are your attitude and how secure the toddlers feel. If you deal with stress in a calm, controlled way that acknowledges your emotions but doesn’t let them run the show, that’s what Baby will probably eventually learn from you – and it may be sooner than you think. Toddlers who feel safe and secure are also more likely to calm down sooner when they’re met with challenges, so staying calm in the face of Baby’s moods, and providing them with a stable environment will only help as they slowly learn how to cope with their big new feelings.
  • Practice makes perfect: Toddlers who aren’t used to having to wait a minute for something they want, or who have never had to share a toy with a playmate before are naturally going to struggle with it a little bit. Having a little practice can make a big difference, even if the first few tries are a little rough.

  • Claire Lerner. “Toddlers and Self-Control: A Survival Guide for Parents.” PBS. PBS, October 19. Web.
  • Amanda R. Tarullo, Jelena Obradovic, Megan R. Gunnar. “Self-Control and the Developing Brain.” Zero to Three. January 2009. Web.
  • “Help Your Child Develop Self-Control.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 21 2010. Web.

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