Teaching Your Toddler Self-Control

The difference between right and wrong, and self-control are not innate abilities that we are born with.  Toddlers and children need to be taught right from wrong, and which behaviours are socially acceptable.  They need to be taught self-control, and most often learn from the example set by those around them.  While every family is unique, the following are some general time and age guidelines on when your child should begin to establish some cooperation and self-control.

Between the ages of 1 and about 1.5 years of age toddlers begin to learn some cooperation, and may listen to simple requests that their parents make. But they also may not, and can be quite unpredictable in their responses to situations or requests. Between the age of 1.5 and 2 years of age toddlers start to develop patience and some self-control.  They may be able to wait for an activity that is enjoyable for them, such as opening their birthday presents and may be more susceptible to listening to your instructions or guidelines such as not running away from you on a busy road. Practice patience though as parents, and keep your emotions in check so as not to get upset with your child when they do not listen – they’re still learning.

Between 2 and 2.5 years of age children begin to further develop their self-control.  As your child begins to speak more they use language to do this, and will even speak to themselves to guide their actions.  In addition they begin to develop their own conscience.  At this age it is important that parents structure their instructions or reprimands in such a way that the child does not feel that they themselves are bad or naughty.  For example, “you’re being naughty” is much harsher and more punitive in comparison to “it isn’t nice to hit, we don’t hit people” (the focus is moved from the child’s character to the behaviour that took place).


Understanding ‘no’

Around the age that your child begins to learn some cooperation and listen to simple requests of their parents they will begin to respond to ‘no.’ However, because language is not yet developed they will not necessarily know the meaning of ‘no’ but rather learn from what happens when ‘no’ is said. For example, if your child is walking towards the uncovered pool, a simple ‘no’ will not suffice. However, a ‘no’ and baby being picked up and moved to a safer location will be meaningful. That’s not to say that your child won’t walk to the pool again, but he will soon learn.  In the same way, he will pick up on your tone when talking to him. Saying things like ‘no,’ ‘hot, ’ ‘careful’ in a similar tone will show your child that how they’re behaving is undesirable.

Initially children need to learn this, and know that in the early years that most often the ‘no’ is in order to ensure their safety.  As toddlers become more autonomous and develop more self-control, they can be more difficult to handle and will become more ‘rebellious.’ There need to be consequences when children do not listen to rules or instructions.  These consequences need to be age appropriate.  For example, a time out of a minute per year of age of the child is thought to be acceptable. A two year old would need to sit for 2 minutes in a time out as their punishment.  Parents need to try hard to stick to boundaries, consequences and to not give in. It’s easy to give in to a child who is throwing a temper tantrum in the shop because he wants a chocolate and it’s embarrassing you. Don’t! Your child will learn that he can manipulate you by crying or screaming. Be firm, but kind in your discipline.


Making Choices

From early on your child will be able to make choices about which shirt they prefer, whether they like broccoli or not, or who they want to be friends with.  Apart from establishing whether your child is making age appropriate decisions (on your watch), those kinds of choices are relatively easy to make.  It’s the choices that you give them in order to rectify their behaviour that are difficult.  It is more effective to give your child a ‘choice’ (or what appears to them to be a choice) rather than simply saying yes or no or instilling a punishment straight away, without opportunity for negotiation.  For example, a child who is throwing mud at his siblings on an outing can get offered the following choice “either you choose to stop throwing mud, or you’re choosing to go home.” While it does place children in something of a bind, it gives them a choice.  As mentioned before though, you need to follow through on your alternatives. If he throws mud again you’re going to have to unfortunately pack up and go home.  He will learn he can manipulate you if you give in.


Recognising Feelings

How to recognise feelings and feelings education requires an in depth discussion of its own.  Children are so unique that no one case is the same, and a method that works for one child may not work for another.  Parents may often be left feeling confused when one of their children won’t stop talking and easily verbalises feelings, while another child remains silent.

However, there are some general rules on how to encourage recognition of feelings. When your child is upset, angry, frustrated or excited (and you can see this) it is important to reflect these feelings back to them, saying something like “I can see that this is making you feel angry.” This shows your child that you are aware of how they’re feeling, and allows them to put a name to their feeling.  It is important for your child to know that all feelings are acceptable, but how these feelings are expressed is what needs to be monitored and managed. Parents need to act as positive role models for expression of emotions, as well as provide their child with the tools to express themselves.  It must be understood that just as adults feel a range of emotions, so do children.  While their reasoning may be different to ours, we cannot underestimate the importance of their feelings and need to let them know that their feelings are real and acceptable.

There is a vast variety of online resources as well as books and games which assist children in recognising or verbalising their feelings. Feelings wheels, where children identify some of their more regular or common felt feelings, ascribe a colour to the feeling (such as red for angry, blue for sad) are useful tools to make and have in the home or classroom. Once the child has identified the feelings for themselves (making it personal) a split pin with an arrow is added and the child is able to move the arrow to point at what they may be feeling.  This is often easier than having to verbalise feelings which children, especially boys, sometimes struggle with.  Because a child does not talk about their feelings does not necessarily mean there is a problem.  However, when children struggle to cope with their feelings in acceptable ways, or their feelings interfere with going to school or friendships, it may be necessary to consult with a psychologist in order to obtain additional support.


Waiting and Sharing

In play group or pre-primary turn taking is part of the school routine. These situations will teach a child to wait for a short period of time (like saying their name in morning ring for roll call) or for longer periods (like being the leader, or having their birthday ring). Teachers teach children that everybody is allowed a turn (if they want), and that you often have to wait for your turn, as well as listen to others during that time.

In Michelle Borba’s book, “Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me”  in a chapter entitled ’10 Secrets to Help Kids Share, Take Turns and Join the Human Race’ (http://www.micheleborba.com)  she lists the following tips: teach by example, show how to share, expect your child to share, stress the value of sharing, share only what belongs to you, rehearse the right way, use role reversal, put away valuable equipment (when having a friend over and not wanting to share certain toys), rotate family roles (such as chores) and set consequence.

It is not necessary to dissect each of these, but what is important is that parents need to model behaviour and encourage their child to share, while allowing their child to set fair boundaries on what they would like to share. As with just about anything, a good example and role model is the best teacher for a child to learn socially acceptable behaviours.

It is important to mention that in situations where a child is being offered a reward in response to positive behaviour it is crucial that they are not made to wait too long. While they must know that they are working towards something, the efficacy of a reward system is lost when children are made to wait for too long, unable to see the reward ‘in sight.’ For example, if you’re utilising a star chart each week, your child needs to know that at the end of the week (or the row of the star chart) he will be receiving his reward. Younger children may need shorter waiting periods, knowing that if they behave at the shop they will be allowed their treat when they get home.

There are a number of books and games, as well as online resources targeted at teaching children turn-taking and how to share.  Similarly, board or card games in themselves teach children to wait their turn, and to let others have their turn. Often children need to be reminded to slow down, or to play the game for fun, not as a means to an end. In many of my play therapy sessions with children I haven’t even had a chance to move my counter up a ladder or down a snake and the dice is already being rolled again. These children need to be reminded to wait for me.  This is especially difficult with younger children who are still learning, or impulsive older children.  In play therapy children learn subtly how to share in that they know that the therapy room is shared with others (even though they don’t always like the idea of it).

Self-control is something all parents want for their children.  However, it feels as if the parents’ role is never complete when it comes to teaching your children appropriate behaviours, consequences and socially acceptable ways.  As always, the example that is set by parents is of paramount importance, while giving your child freedom to express himself and explore his surroundings and feelings within a firm, safe boundary.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine


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