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Learning Self Control: 24 to 36 Months

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.

In order to follow rules and understand limits, children need to have self-control. Self-control is the ability to cope with strong feelings and stop ourselves from doing something we want to do, but that is not allowed. Developing self-control begins at birth and continues across our lives. Young children learn self-control through interactions with peers and guidance from parents and other loving adults.

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 two-and-a-half 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 and emotional development.

What You Can Do To Help Older Toddlers Cope With Limits

Here are some ways you can help older toddlers understand their limits while making them feel safe and secure.

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 your child isn’t expecting. Ask her, as she is shouting angrily, to join you in a game, help you make dinner, or to take a look out the window to see the pretty bird. Or just go to her and give her a big bear 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. You might call this safe, quiet space the “cozy corner.” It could have some pillows, stuffed animals, books and small, safe toys. When your child pulls himself together, tell him what a good job he did calming himself down.

Reconnect. Use a warm, caring tone of voice. Give your child a hug. Tell her what a good job she did calming herself down.

Discuss what happened and problem-solve. You were really angry and you kicked your brother. It’s okay to feel angry, but in our family, we do not kick or hurt each other. Kicking hurts. Brainstorm different ways to handle the situation next time, for example: Let’s give your brother some of his own cups to play with so he won’t mess up yours.

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.

Help her solve the problem. For example, go to Paolo together and ask for the toy back. Use a kitchen timer to help your child learn to wait and take turns.

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, he 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 your child a visual to help her cope with waiting. If you’d like your child to brush her teeth for 2 minutes each day after lunch, use an egg timer so she can watch the countdown. Need 10 minutes to fold some clothes? Set a kitchen timer so that your child has a concrete way of understanding how long she has to wait. This helps her feel more in control and therefore able to cope better.

Look for patterns in your child’s behavior. Sometimes you can identify patterns that signal you child is likely to “lose it.” Anticipating these breakdowns can help you prevent them. For example, if you notice your 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 is also really 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.

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 pillows instead. Offering an alternative is important because many toddlers are not yet able to identify more appropriate activities on their own. Give choices that head off misbehavior. For example, when your 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 positive (not angry), simple, and at your child’s level. Help him understand he has choices, and every choice has a consequence.

Look for ways to help your child 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.

Stand there. When your child is having a tantrum, as long as he’s not in any danger, stop for a moment and think about: What is she struggling with? (For example, is she tired, hungry, overwhelmed, scared, frustrated, angry, and why.) How can I help her cope with these feelings? What do I want her to learn from this situation? What am I feeling and reacting to? Giving yourself the time to think through what’s going on for both you and your child will help you respond in a calm and effective way. Don’t fear the tantrum. See it as a “teachable moment.”


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