Your almost-three-year-old’s sense of self-control

Most parents of nearly three-year-old children have seen this scenario play out:

Baby is playing nicely with their cousins at the family picnic until an older child brings out a new toy dog. Instead of waiting for their turn to play with it, Baby pushes a younger cousin out of the way and grabs the dog out of another child’s hands. Shouldn’t children have more self-control by this age?

The struggle with self-control

Self-control – or the process of putting appropriate actions ahead of emotions – can be a tough developmental step for young children. Younger toddlers typically want what they want, even if the desired item or activity is dangerous, belongs to someone else, or is just not an option.  When told “no,” they can resort to disruptive behavior, from tantrums to hitting, in hopes of getting what they want.

A life-long process

Furthermore, self-control isn’t just an issue for the toddler years. Child development research shows that the practice of self-control factors into future activities, including success in school and the ability to avoid unhealthy behaviors. By helping young children see the value of getting past their emotions and learning to control their own behavior, parents can help toddlers better prepare for the future.

With Baby now almost three years old, what steps can you take to help them better regulate their own behavior?

  • Focus on positive actions: A big part of teaching good behavior is identifying it when you see it. If Baby accepts that they won’t get a toy during a shopping trip for a playmate’s birthday present, let them know how proud you are of this big-kid behavior.
  • Promote healthy habits: It often comes back to the basics – a well-fed, well-rested child is in a much better position to behave than one running on fumes. Do everything you can to keep Baby positioned for success. A trip to the mall with an over-tired toddler who picked at their breakfast is a sure-fire recipe for a meltdown.
  • Look at family dynamics: Parents send subtle and not-so-subtle messages to young children about behavior every day, and it may be time to examine how your family handles challenging situations. Are mix-ups and mistakes handled calmly or with anger and frustration? Remember that your actions are Baby’s strongest example of behavior.
  • Lean on language skills: Children approaching age three are developing the ability to better communicate and understand the world around them, and these skills can help weave an element of self-control into playtime conflicts. Encourage Baby to use their words when squabbles occur with friends and talk with them about the feelings that occur at these times. For example, you might say, “I know you were frustrated that so many other children wanted to play in the little kitchen, but we don’t push our friends.”

By age three, children begin to gain skills – from language to empathy – that can help them make real progress on issues related to self-control. Be gentle, supportive, and consistent to Baby, and you’ll help them get a better handle on how to deal with challenging emotions.

  • “Aggressive Behavior.” Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 American Academy of Pediatrics. November 21 2015. Retrieved September 5 2017.
  • “Developmental Milestones: 3 to 4 Year Olds.” Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 American Academy of Pediatrics. November 21 2015. Retrieved September 5 2017.
  • Claire Lerner. “Public Displays of Disaster: What to Do When Your Child Loses it Outside the Home.” Zero to Three. February 29 2016. Retrieved September 5 2017.
  • “Help Your Child Develop Self-Control.” Zero to Three. February 21 2010. Retrieved September 5 2017.
  • “Helping Your Children Learn Self-Control.” Penn State Extension/Better Kid Care. Parent Count. December 2005. Retrieved September 5 2017. 
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