The development of toddlers’ self-control

“Are we there yet?” may be Baby’s line in long car trips a few years down the road, but for now, it may be your turn to be a little impatient. Baby is growing so fast – some days it may feel like too fast – but there are still some milestones that they always seem to be getting close to without quite reaching. Is they ready to sleep through the night yet? Is they finished being a picky eater? Has they got enough self-control to not throw a tantrum if they start to go into meltdown-mode mid-shopping trip?

Unfortunately, the answer to the last question is probably still, “no,” but they'll get there! The development of self-control is a long, bumpy ride. Baby is in the driver’s seat for this one, but they're lucky enough to have you navigating for them as they work on the skills they will need to grow into a self-controlled child and adult. It may not look like it, but they're well on their way!

Types of self-control

Self-control isn’t just one thing – there are many different types of control that fall under the self-control umbrella, and toddlers aren’t always ready to tackle them all at once. Luckily, working on one type of self-control can be helpful in quietly starting to develop other types, even if it’s not obvious that they’re making progress at first. Types of self-control include:

  • Impulse control: Research shows that impulse control doesn’t develop strongly enough for children to resist doing something they’re not allowed to do, but want to, until some time between the ages of three and a half and four. Research conducted by the non-profits Zero to Three and the Bezos Foundation also shows that more than half of parents believe children under the age of three have that kind of self-control, and just choose not to use it. A significant number of parents, 36%, believe children under the age of two have that much self-control. The trouble with toddlers is that they’re so bright, and in many ways so advanced, compared to themselves when they were younger, but their brain development is still immature in many ways, plenty of which aren’t obvious or clear to even the adults closest to them. At this point, the best way to keep Baby from doing the things they isn’t allowed to do is to not give them the opportunity, or to distract them. It’s still a good idea to let them know what the rules are, it’s just equally important to realize that they may know them, but still not be able to help themself for a little while longer.
  • Emotional control: The Zero to Three and Bezos Foundation study also found that many parents believed that children under the age of two, or even under the age of one, had strong enough emotional control to keep themselves from throwing tantrums if they wanted to, though research also suggests that emotional control to this degree only really develops between three and a half and four. You can help them start to work on their emotional control as they move closer to their third birthday by introducing time-outs during tantrums that don’t have a set time limit, but end when they calm down. This will introduce the idea of taking a little time to go off on their own and express their feelings instead of lashing out, and also reward them for calming down in a way that encourages better emotional control.
  • Movement control: Children who are still developing their movement control tend to get squirmy when they’re expected to sit still, have trouble with activities like storytime or circle time at preschool, have trouble taking turns, or interrupt when others are playing games or having a conversation. Movement control also tends to develop on its own, and under its own timeline, but just like with impulse control, it’s helpful for toddlers to start to learn what the rules are, even if they’re not quite capable of following them yet. You can help them practice taking turns by introducing them to cooperative games, where everyone needs to take their turn or it just isn’t as fun, like pass, or, as they get a little older, board games.

Self-control is, at its heart, a social skill. This means that, as they grow, developing self-control is going to be an important part of how Baby does in school, and how they make friends. They may not appreciate it when you ask them to practice their still-developing self-control, but before too long, they're going to need it, and if practice doesn’t make perfect, it does make permanent.

  • Claire Lerner, Rebecca Parlakian. “Toddlers and Self-Control: A Survival Guide for Parents.” PBS Parents. PBS. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • Amanda R. Tarullo, Jelena Obradovic, Megan R. Gunnar. “Self-Control and the Developing Brain.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE, 2009. Retrieved July 20 2017.,%20Obradovic,%20Gunnar%20(2009,%200-3)%20Self-Control%20and%20the%20Developing%20Brain.pdf.
  • W. Douglas Tynan. “Teaching Your Child Self-Control.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, January 2015. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • Lexi Walters Wright. “The Importance of Self-Control for Kids with Learning and Attention Issues.” Understood. Retrieved July 20 2017.
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