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How Toddlers Learn Self-Control from 24-36 Months

Feb 9, 2016

Developing self-control begins at birth and continues throughout childhood. Learn what you can do to help your two-year-old develop and practice self-control.

In order to follow rules and understand limits, children need to develop self-control. Self-control is the ability to cope with strong feelings and stop one’s self from doing something that is not allowed. Developing self-control begins at birth and continues throughout childhood. Young children learn self-control through interactions with peers and guidance from parents and other loving adults.

Two-Year-Olds and Self-Control

Older toddlers are making great strides in developing self-control but still have a ways to go to learn to manage their impulses in appropriate ways. While they are beginning to understand what is and is not acceptable, they still do not have the full ability to stop themselves from doing something that’s not allowed. Here is an example:

A 2-½-year-old wants the toy that his friend is playing with. He grabs it. His friend grabs it back. He hits his friend. They both begin to cry. His mother calms him and then helps him return the toy to his friend. She explains that hitting is not okay and helps him ask for a turn with the toy.

At this stage, setting and enforcing rules consistently becomes very important. Age-appropriate rules let children know what to expect, which makes them feel safe, secure and in control—key ingredients for their healthy social-emotional development. Experiencing consistent responses to behaviors also helps children make good decisions.

What you can do when an incident happens:

  • Stay calm. The calmer you are, the calmer the children will be. Children need you to be their rock when they are “losing it.“
  • Try a distraction. Ignore the kicking and screaming and do something unpredictable that the child isn’t expecting. Ask her to join you in a game, help you get snack ready, or take a look out the window to see the pretty bird. Or just go to her and give her a big hug.
  • Suggest taking a break. Some children actually calm down much more quickly when they can be by themselves in a safe place. This is not punishment. It helps children learn to soothe themselves. This safe, quiet space, the “cozy corner” if you will, might have some pillows, stuffed animals, books and small, safe toys. When the child pulls himself together, tell him what a good job he did calming himself down.
  • Reconnect. Use a warm, caring tone of voice. Give the child a hug. Tell her what a good job she did dealing with her angry feelings.
  • Discuss what happened and problem-solve. You were really angry and you kicked your friend. It’s okay to feel angry, but kicking is not okay. Kicking hurts. Brainstorm different ways to handle the situation next time: Let’s give Justin some of his own cups to play with so he won’t mess up yours.

Everyday ways to nurture self-control:

  • Suggest ways to manage strong emotions. When a child is really angry, suggest that he jump up and down, rip paper, cuddle up in a cozy area for alone time, paint an angry picture or another strategy that you feel is appropriate. Teach children that there are many healthy, non-hurtful ways to express their feelings.
  • Look for ways to practice self-control. Turn-taking games such as rolling a ball back and forth require children to wait and control their impulses. Take turns hitting a soft foam ball off a tee. Play “sharing music” where each of you chooses an instrument to play and set an egg-timer for 1 minute. When the timer goes off, switch instruments and set the timer again.
  • Give choices to head off misbehavior. For example, when a child is having trouble sharing a ball, you might say, You have a decision to make. You can choose to take turns with the ball or put the ball away. Keep your language firm while positive, simple and at the child’s level. Help him understand he has choices, and that every choice has a consequence.
  • Offer alternatives. Help toddlers meet their goals in acceptable ways. It’s not okay to throw blocks. Someone might get hurt. Let’s throw these foam balls into a basket instead. Offering an alternative is important because toddlers need help identifying more appropriate activities.
  • Be consistent. Consistency with rules is key to helping children learn to make good choices. If every time a child throws a toy it gets taken away, she quickly learns not to throw toys. But when the rules keep changing, it is hard for young children to understand which rules are “for real.”
  • Give children a visual to help them cope with waiting. If you’d like children to brush their teeth for 2 minutes each day after lunch, use an egg timer so they can watch the countdown. Need 10 minutes to call a parent? Set a timer so that children have a concrete way of understanding how long they have to wait.This helps them feel more in control and therefore able to cope better.
  • Look for patterns in children’s behavior. Sometimes you can identify patterns that signal a child is likely to “lose it.” Anticipating these breakdowns can help you prevent them. For example, if you notice that a child has a hard time coping with transitions, such as going from lunch to nap, you can give him a warning 5 minutes before. It can also be very helpful to establish a ritual that helps him make the change, such as reading a book or starting a drawing together that you finish when he wakes up.
  • Don’t do something, just stand there. If a child is having a tantrum, take 15 seconds to stop and think before reacting. Ask yourself: What is my goal here? What do I want the child to learn from this experience? Taking the time to think it through can help you respond in a calmer more thoughtful and more effective way.


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