Parenting Resource

Learning Self Control: 12 to 24 Months

Feb 2, 2016

Young toddlers can become easily frustrated as they learn to follow rules and understand limits.

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 cannot (or should not). 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.

Toddlers express their strong feelings loud and clear. “No!” becomes a favorite word. Toddlers can also become easily frustrated because there are still many things that they want to do but cannot.

Here is an example of how toddlers learn self-control:

A 15-month-old grabs the television remote. His mother removes it from his hand and puts it on a bookshelf. She says, “The remote is not a toy, sweetie. I can’t let you play with it. But how about this instead? She offers him a toy with lots of buttons to push and doors to open. The toddler cries for a moment to show his frustration, pointing and reaching for the remote. But once he sees that she is not giving the remote control back, he accepts this cool new toy.

What You Can Do to Help Young Toddlers Cope with Limits

By providing guidance and intervention that is appropriate for your toddler’s age and stage, you can help them learn to cope with strong feelings.

Stop the behavior. For example, firmly (but not angrily) take your child’s hand and tell her in a serious (but not angry) voice: No hitting. Hitting hurts.

Label your child’s feelings. This makes her feel understood and helps her calm down. You are so angry that Paolo took your toy. It’s okay to feel angry. But you cannot hit. Hitting hurts. Offer an appropriate way to express feelings. Show her what she can do to express her angry feelings, like jump up and down or stomp her feet.

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.

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.

Be a role model for showing children healthy ways to cope with strong feelings. I can’t find my keys, and we’re running late. I am so frustrated right now. I think I will take a deep breath and count to five before I look for them.

Create a safe space in your home where children can go when they need a break. This is a place that should be viewed as soothing and positive, not as punishment. Fill it with comfort objects such as pillows, stuffed animals and books. You can even ask your child to help set it up. When your child is having a breakdown or acting out, he can go there to “chill out” and regroup. You can explain that it is okay to be angry, sad, frustrated, etc, but that it is not okay to yell, hit, scream, etc. This is the safe place where children can go to feel calmer and pull themselves together.

Help children learn to soothe themselves. When a child breaks down, he is telling you that he is having trouble coping. When you comfort him, you help him learn how to soothe himself—an important life skill. This is not spoiling or giving in. It is helping him learn how to deal with disappointment and frustration.

There is an important difference between spoiling and soothing. If your child throws a tantrum when you say “no” to television and you change the rule and let him watch, that is giving in. He is learning that a tantrum is a successful way to get what he wants. But if you let him know that you understand he is disappointed and angry (but a rule is a rule), and then help him calm down and begin another activity, you are teaching him to cope with disappointment.