Toddlers and Self-Control: A Survival Guide for Parents

19 December 2016
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/ by Claire Lerner, LCSWC and Rebecca Parlakian, Zero to Three

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Pulling the dog’s tail after you’ve told your child not to touch it. Hitting a friend who took the train she didn’t want two minutes ago. Running across the street after you’ve asked him to go together. These are typical moments that all come down to one thing: self-control, and toddler’s lack of it.

 

Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration and stress for both parents and children.

 

“Last night, my son had the biggest tantrum…I ended up giving in. But, I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Up against my son, I feel like I’m out of control. I don’t know if it’s the age or the stage, or I should have better parenting skills, but all the time I just feel so powerless.” (Rebecca from Washington, DC)

 

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Findings from a major research endeavor, Tuning In — conducted by ZERO TO THREE and The Bezos Family Foundation — revealed that thousands of parents of children five years and younger overestimate toddlers’ ability for self-control.

  • Over half of all parents (56 percent) believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age three.
  • Over a third (36 percent) believe that children under age two have this kind of self-control. Brain research shows that these skills start developing between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently.
  • Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of all parents believe that children are able to control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at one year or younger.
  • Almost half (42 percent) believe children have this ability by two years. Research shows this type of self-control is also just starting to develop between 3.5 and 4 years, and that it takes many more years for children to master the ability to manage their feelings. (And some of us adults are still working on this skill!)

So why do young children have so little self-control? The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over the emotional, impulsive part is not well developed in children under three. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than ask nicely for a turn.

Remember too that being able to recite a rule — Hands are not for hitting — is not the same as being able to follow it. Clever, verbal two-year-olds make it easy for parents to have an “expectation gap” since they seem to understand so much. But life with your toddler will be more joyful and less maddening when your expectations are in line with his abilities — when you see that your child is acting his age, and that he needs help to learn to manage his impulses. He is not purposefully trying to drive you crazy, as much as it may feel that way.

Here are some ideas for nurturing self-control:

  1. Recognize that its not easy being a toddler. There are an awful lot of things toddlers need to do that they don’t want to do, like getting in the car seat, stopping play to take a nap when they are NOT tired, or sharing their treasures. Let your child know you understand: “You’re really disappointed that we can’t go to the playground today.” “You’re mad that I won’t let you have ice cream before dinner. I totally get that.” “You are so frustrated with that train — it is so hard to make it stay on the track.” Giving your child the words to describe his feelings is the first step toward helping him manage his emotions and develop self-control.
  2. Play games that require impulse control. Color one side of a paper plate red and the other green, and play some “stop and go” games. Hold up the green sign and let her run. Then turn to the red side and wait for her to stop. Play “freeze dance” with music. When the music is on, your child dances; when you stop it, she has to freeze.
  3. Use pretend to practice self-control. When a stuffed animal gets really mad or does something it shouldn’t, problem-solve how “Mr. Bear” might deal differently with the challenge he’s facing.
  4. Set appropriate limits with natural consequences. Even though your child may not be able to follow a rule yet, it is still important to set a few simple family rules. Look at it as an important way of teaching and guiding your child. Stay calm and explain the rule (“No throwing toys. If you throw the truck, I will have to put it away”). If your child tests the limit, calmly implement a natural, age-appropriate consequence, like taking away an object that he is misusing. Through everyday interactions like these, children develop the brain connections they need to master the skill of self-control.
  5. Take your own temperature. As a parent, you have a lot of power. Your child is taking his cues from you when it comes to managing emotions. Learning to manage and make sense of your own feelings — and getting help when you need it (and we all do) — is the best way to help your child develop self-control. Responding thoughtfully, rather than reacting, is one important way that parents support their children’s healthy development.

 

Find more ways to help your child manage their emotions and develop self-control:

Learn more about how to support children’s healthy development in the first year and beyond, by visiting zerotothree.org and JoinVroom.org, or by following #ParentForward on Twitter.


Data presented here are drawn from an online survey of adults conducted for ZERO TO THREE and The Bezos Family Foundation by SoAct Consulting, an independent research company. The survey was conducted in October 2015 among a nationally representative sample of 2,200 parents of children aged birth through 5 years. The Margin of Error at the 95% confidence level for a sample of 2200 is +/- 2.1%.