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From Baby to Big Kid

An e-newsletter that showcases how children learn and grow each month from birth to 3 years. From Baby to Big Kid translates the science of early childhood and offers strategies parents can tailor to their unique family situation and to the needs of their child.
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School Readiness

0-12 Months12-2424-36
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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.  They are beginning to understand what is and is not acceptable and can anticipate the consequences of their actions. But they still do not have the full ability to stop themselves from doing something, even though they have been told it is unacceptable.

 

At this stage, setting and enforcing rules consistently becomes very important and is a gift you give to your child.  This lets children know what to expect, which makes them feel safe, secure and in control—key ingredients for social and emotional well-being.  Setting limits also helps toddlers learn to manage disappointment—an essential life skill—since for better or worse, life is full of little and sometimes big frustrations. 

 

Click on the links below to learn more about how to help your 2-year-old develop self-control:


Set and enforce clear and consistent limits.

Daily life provides active toddlers with many opportunities to cope with challenges, negotiate, problem-solve, lose control and regain it.  Though it’s natural to dread those moments your toddler “loses it” or behaves in a way that is not acceptable to you (like throwing a block or hitting a sibling), it may help to remember that these are important learning experiences as well.  They are opportunities for you to teach your child right from wrong, to respect rules, to cope with disappointment, and to find acceptable ways to get their needs met.  These are all ingredients for being a successful in school and life.

 

What You Can Do:

  • Use words and gestures to communicate your message.  Words alone may not be enough to get your toddler to stop an unacceptable activity.  This is because your toddler’s ability to show self-control is limited.  To help your child understand your message, use a low, authoritative (not angry or screaming) voice.  At the same time, use a “stop” or “no-no” gesture along with your words.  Keep in mind your toddler may not respond the first or even the second time.  It takes thousands of repetitions, hearing the words together with the actions, before the words alone will work their magic.

  • Recognize your child’s feeling or goal.  Use words to show that your child that you understand what he wants to do: You want to play with the water, but you can not spill the water from your sippy cup on the floor.  Or, You are really angry.  You want to stay longer at the playground, but it is not okay to hit mommy. Hitting hurts.

  • Re-direct your child’s attention.  Help your toddler express his interests or meet his goals in an acceptable way. It’s not okay to throw blocks. Someone might get hurt. Let’s throw these pillows instead.

  • Teach alternatives. Tell and show your child acceptable ways to channel his energy. If you interrupt your child’s behavior, but do not offer an acceptable alternative, the unacceptable behavior will probably continue.  This is because many toddlers are not yet able to identify other (more acceptable) activities on their own.  So for a little one who loves to dump his sippy cup, take him outside or put him in the tub to give him acceptable ways to play with water.

  • 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 make good choices.  If one night a tantrum means he gets to stay up late, but the next night it doesn’t work, your child will be confused about what choice to make: Should I keep making a big stink tonight? Maybe this will be the night daddy does let me stay up if I keep it up.

  • Avoid negotiating.  It happens for the best of reasons.  We want to make sure our children feel heard.  We want them to see us as open-minded, good listeners.  We want to be flexible.  (And sometimes we are just tired!)  But negotiating about family rules is a tricky road.  Often, a child who is frequently allowed to negotiate for extra cookies or a later bedtime will quickly learn that this is a very effective way to get these “fringe benefits.”  Having consistent rules—about things like holding hands in a parking lot, sitting in a carseat, brushing teeth or taking baths—actually help children feel safe and secure.  They come to understand that there is structure, logic, and consistency in their world. 

Give your child the skills she needs to manage her emotions.
As your child gets closer to age 3, you will be able to help him think back on a situation and talk about what he learned from it.  You can also help your child think through whether he made good or not-so-good choices, and what he can do next time when he finds himself in a similar situation.  For example, you can help your child figure out that making music by banging a spoon on a pot is better than banging a spoon on the table.  To make the most of these discussions:

  • Keep it simple.  Don’t go on for too long.  Don’t expect too much analysis on your child’s part.  Simply explain what happened.  Talk in a calm and neutral voice.  Ask questions to make sure your child understands: Do you remember when you hit Carrie because you wanted your doll back?

  • Point out the consequences of your child’s behavior: After you hit Carrie, she started to cry.  It hurt. She felt sad and mad. 

  • Brainstorm what better choice(s) your child could make next time.  If Carrie takes the doll you’re playing with, what are some things you could do besides hit? If your child doesn’t have any ideas (this is very normal), you can suggest some strategies: You can tell her, ‘That is my doll.  Please don’t take it.’  Or you could come get mommy for help. Do you have other ideas?

The ability to substitute an acceptable action for one that is not acceptable is a critical part of developing self-control.  It is also an essential skill for functioning well in school and throughout life.



What You Can Do:

  • Give your child a chance to figure things out before stepping in.  Whether it is finding the right place for the puzzle piece she is holding or negotiating who gets to go down the slide first, let your child try to figure out a solution first, before you step in to help.  You may be surprised to see how capable she is at managing conflict and dealing with the challenges she encounters.  At times, of course, she will still need your support and assistance, but as she gets older, you may be amazed at what a good job she is doing all on her own!

  • Provide your child with appropriate opportunities to make choices—about what to wear and what to eat (within reason), what to play, who to play with.  This gives her a feeling of control and reinforces her developing sense of confidence and competency (a sense that “I can do it”).

  • Look for ways to help your child “practice” self-control.  There are many daily moments when you can give your child the chance to practice self-control.  For example, turn-taking games such as simply rolling a ball back and forth require children to both 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. 

Help your child learn to cope with her strong feelings.
The emotional lives of 2-year-olds are complex.  They begin to experience feelings like pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment.  Older toddlers are a lot like teenagers.  Their feelings may swing wildly from moment to moment.  They may be ecstatic when getting a popsicle and then be utterly despairing at having it drip on their hands.  While their language and thinking skills are developing rapidly, older toddlers still need loving guidance to figure out how to cope with their emotions.

 

Challenging behavior often reflects a child’s inability to figure out how to express their feelings in an acceptable way or how to get an important need met.  This means that a big part of reducing or preventing challenging behavior is helping children learn ways of managing their emotions and communicating their feelings and needs.  Often this happens naturally as children develop better language skills in their third year, and have more experience with peers, coping with disappointment, and following rules.

 

You may see your toddler show you he is learning about self-control when he:

  • Uses words or actions to get your attention or ask for help

  • Talks to himself in a reassuring way when he is frustrated or frightened; for example saying to himself, Daddy will come back, after you drop him off at child care; or I can make this tower not fall down when playing with blocks

  • Re-enacts a stressful event, like a doctor’s visit

  • Uses words like I’m mad rather than throwing or hitting

  • Tells you the rules or shows that she feels badly about breaking rules; for example saying no to herself as she does something off-limits, like opening the fridge, or explaining at the park, Don’t walk in front of the swings.

What You Can Do:

  • Suggest ways to manage strong emotions.  When your child is really angry, suggest that he jump up and down, hit the sofa cushions, rip paper, cuddle up in a cozy area for alone time, paint an angry picture or some other strategy that you feel is appropriate.  What’s important is to teach your child that there are many ways to express his feelings in healthy, non-hurtful ways, and to help him practice these strategies.

  • Empathize with your child.  It’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes the choices he is being offered are not the ones she wants.  We have to leave now to go to Ms. Kelly’s house. I know you want to stay home with daddy. You miss me and I miss you when we are not together. But staying home is not a choice today.  Daddy has to go to work. But when we get home, we will finish the puzzle we started and have a yummy dinner.  Do you want to get into the car seat yourself or do you want me to put you in?

  • Give your child a visual to help him cope with waiting.  If your child has to wait until his oatmeal has cooled down, show him the steam rising from the bowl.  Tell him when the steam goes away, you can test the oatmeal on a spoon to see if it is cool enough.  If you need to help your child brush her teeth for 2 minutes each day, 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 can keep track.  It’s also okay to acknowledge the obvious: It’s hard to wait sometimes, isn’t it?

  • Plan ahead.  Bring books or a drawing pad to the doctor’s office.  Offer lacing beads and string to your toddler while you feed her younger brother or sister.  Give your child a pot and wooden spoon to stir with while you are cooking dinner.  When you offer your child something to do while she waits, it shows her how to cope with feelings of boredom or frustration. 

Look for clues to understand the meaning behind your child’s behavior.
All behavior has meaning and serves a purpose.  And the same behavior can mean different things. For example, one child may bite when someone gets too close to him to keep the person at a distance.  Another child may bite because the sensation of biting is satisfying to him.  He has a physical need to bite.

 

So how you respond to a particular behavior will depend on your best guess about what the behavior means for your child at that moment in time.  The first child above will need help learning how to communicate when people are getting too close in ways that don’t hurt others.  The second child will need to be offered alternative ways to meet his oral needs, such as having crunchy snacks throughout the day.  (Indeed, research has shown that offering crunchy foods can reduce biting in some children.).

 

Thinking about the following factors will help piece together what your child might be trying to tell you through his behavior:

  • What is your child’s physical or emotional state? (Is your child sick/healthy? Has he had a nap? Is he hungry? etc.)

  • What is your child’s temperament? (Does he generally have a hard time with change? Is he a big reactor by nature?)

  • What situational or environmental issues are challenging for your child? (Is he going to a new babysitter’s house? Has there been a recent change in his world—a new sibling, grandma coming to visit, the loss of a pet, etc?)

  • What transitions are most challenging for him/her? (For example, going from home to child care, or going to bed at night.)

  • What “triggers” his challenging behavior—what things tend to “set him off”? 

  • What times of day are most challenging for your child? (Such as before naptime.)

  • Are there specific people that your child has a hard time with?  (Perhaps it is because their temperaments do not “fit” well with his.)

You can also help your child begin to develop self-awareness and learn self-control when you share your observations: I know when there are a lot of children at the park you like to watch for a little while before going to play.  That’s okay.  Why don’t we sit here on the bench until you feel ready to join in? 

 

When it comes to teaching self-control, there are no one-size-fits-all answers.  Using what you know about your child will help you figure out the best way to respond on a case-by-case basis.

 

What You Can Do:

  • Look for patterns in your child’s behavior. By being a careful observer, you can identify patterns such as what situations are difficult or stressful for her and can begin to anticipate when a “blow-up” might occur.  Then you can take steps to prevent the break down. For example, if you notice that your child breaks down every time he has to get into his car seat, you might give him a warning 5 minutes beforehand and then let him choose a special book or toy to bring in the car to help make the transition.

  • Help your child understand her feelings and behavior.  This self-awareness helps her learn to manage her feelings in positive ways.  For example, you might say to a child who has a hard time moving between activities: It’s hard for you to get in the car to go to childcare. Why don’t you pick out a favorite book to read, or we can play ‘I spy’ while we drive. Which do you want to do?  Over time this helps your child learn strategies to cope with situations that are challenging for her.

  • Think prevention.  Use what you know about your child to plan ahead.  For example, if you know that she feels very shy meeting new people, you may want to start flipping through the family photo album in the weeks before you attend a big family picnic so she can start to recognize extended family members.  During playtime, you can act out having a picnic with her Aunt Betty and Uncle Bert.  You might also want to pack your daughter’s “lovey” as well as a few of her favorite books to bring with her.  When you get to the event, help your relatives connect with your daughter by suggesting that they don’t rush in for a big hug, but wait for her to “warm up” first.  Using these strategies is not “giving in” to your child.  You are helping her manage what, for her, is a very challenging situation.  This helps her learn how to cope when she encounters new people in a different setting, such as school.

Respond to tantrums in a way that helps your child learn self-control.
A tantrum signals a loss of control.  Tantrums mean your child is overwhelmed and needs your help to regain control.  Children are not able to learn anything when they are in this emotionally overwhelmed place.  So when a child is having a tantrum, the goal is to help her regain control. It is only when your child is calm again that she can learn from the situation.

 

Most often children throw a tantrum because they have been denied something they want.  The tantrum is often the result of a limit being set and enforced.  Perhaps they have been denied a cookie before dinner, TV time is over, or you told them it was time to leave the playground.  Helping your child recover from a tantrum is not coddling her or giving in. (Giving them the cookie or turning the TV back on would be!)  It is helping her learn to manage life’s disappointments—a very important skill.  It is only when your child has recovered from the tantrum that she is ready to learn from the experience. 

 

What You Can Do:
While nothing works every time—unfortunately they have not yet invented an “anti-tantrum” spray—below are a range of techniques that parents can use to prevent and respond to challenging behavior: (adapted from the WEVAS model in Kaiser, & Sklar-Rasminsky, 2003)

  • Stay calm. This is the essential first step. The calmer you are, the calmer your child will be.  Children take their cue from our responses.  When we get agitated, upset, and frustrated at their tantrum, it increases their upset. They need you to be their rock when they are “losing it.”

  • Try an interrupt.  If your child is agitated past the point where he is able to respond to what you are saying or doing, try an interrupt.  This is an unpredictable response the child isn’t expecting, like asking a child who is shouting angrily to join you in a game.  Or just go to him and give him a big bear hug.  (Adapted from Kaiser & Sklar Rasminsky, 2003.  See our resource list for more information.)

  • Take a break.  There is a value to giving children a break.  Some children actually calm down much more quickly when they are breaking down by being by themselves in a safe place. This is not punishment.  It is an important strategy to help children learn to soothe themselves and regain control—a critical life skill. Some families call this safe, quiet space the “cozy” corner.  It might have some pillows, stuffed animals, books and small, safe toys.  When your child pulls herself together, it is very important that you acknowledge it by telling her what a good job she did calming herself down.

  • Reconnect after a tantrum:
    • Use a warm and supportive tone of voice.

    • Give your child a kiss and hug.

    • Tell your child what a good job she did calming herself down.

    • Discuss what happened.  Ask for details, and help your child think through the choices she made: You were really angry and you hit your baby brother. What made you angry?  It’s okay to feel angry, but in our family, we do not hit. Hitting hurts. 

    • Brainstorm different ways to handle the situation next time. The next time you make a tea party, let’s give you brother some of his own cups and pretend food to play with so he won’t take or mess up yours.

    • Do not talk for too long or ask too many questions.  Keep it short and to-the-point.

    • End with a kiss, hug, and an “I love you.”

Give your child choices
Choices help children feel in control.  So it is very important to find ways to give your child choices as often as possible.  However, the key is that the choices you are offering have to be acceptable to you.  Don’t ask, Are you ready for bed? if their bedtime is not negotiable.  But you might ask, Would you like to brush teeth before or after we read books?  You are not asking if they want to brush their teeth or not—this is not up for debate.  But you are giving the control over when they brush.

 

What you can do:

  • Offer 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. When you give choices, remember to:
    • Offer these choices in a positive, respectful way. Avoid sounding angry or punitive.

    • Make these choices realistic and establish fair consequences ahead of time. You can decide to put your puzzle away and then we can play with the trains.  Or, we can keep playing with the puzzle.  But we cannot take the train tracks out until the puzzle pieces are back in the box.

    • Keep your language simple and at your child’s level.

    • Do not use the choices as a threat.  Presenting the options is a way to help your child know that she has choices and that every choice has consequences.  It is way to help children think more rationally when they are upset.

Explore alternatives to time-out. 
Time-outs are fairly ineffective with children aged 2 and 3.  Toddlers have little impulse control. They cannot consistently control their actions and, as a result, may not be able to sit in one place for any period of time (even a minute or two).  This puts parents in the position of holding them down in “time out”—which doesn’t feel good for anyone. 
   
For many children, time-out actually increases their distress and loss of control. These children may benefit more from being held closely, or rocked, as they need this kind of touch and body contact in order to reorganize. This is okay and should not be seen as "giving in." Most important is helping your child calm down so he can then be available to learn from the experience.

 

Most importantly, time-outs do not help children learn from the experience and they do not teach correct behaviorIf children don’t know what to do instead of an unacceptable behavior, they are likely to repeat it.  Time-outs only serve to punish and isolate the child (Kaiser & Sklar Rasminsky, 2003.  See our resource list for more information.)

 
Know yourself.  You are your child’s role model for how to cope with challenges (and everything else as well!).  So how you manage your own feelings and reactions is an important factor in your ability to help your child develop self-control.

 

To help you tune in to your reactions to your child, think about the following:

  • How does your child’s behavior makes you feel?

  • What is your immediate reaction is to his/her behavior?  Why might you have this reaction?

  • Is your child’s behavior touching on one of your own “hot buttons”?  For example, one parent does not mind her toddler playing with food in the high chair.  She sees it as healthy exploration.  Another mother does not want her toddler playing with food.  She believes this is very disrespectful and wants to teach her child not to do this.  Playing with food is a “hot button” issue for her and she reacts very strongly—sternly telling her child to Stop playing with your food, or I will take your plate away.  Sometimes when we are reacting to a hot button issue, we respond with strong emotion, but not always in a way that helps our child learn.

What You Can Do:

  • Model self-calming.  I just spilled ketchup all over my shirt!  How frustrating!  Okay, let me take close my eyes and take a deep breath.  After that, I will need to go change.

  • Recognize your own feelings. Try making a habit of taking 15 seconds to be still and not act when you are in a “hot button” situation with your child.  Use those few seconds to think: What is my goal here?  What do I want my child to learn? Even waiting and thinking a few seconds before acting will help you respond in a calmer, more thoughtful, and more helpful way.

    Give your child lots of credit when he shows self-control.  Children want to please.  When you respond positively to their behavior, you reinforce that behavior and also build their self-esteem. You stomped your feet when you were mad rather than hitting.  Great job!  And children who feel good about themselves are more likely to be well-behaved.

     


    It is also important to help children experience and understand the benefits of good behavior.  For example, if they cooperate with teeth-brushing, there is time for an extra book at bedtime. 

           
    One of the most consistent findings in early childhood research is that an emotionally warm and positive approach in learning situations leads to positive behavior in children (Kaiser & Sklar Rasminsky, 2003; see our resource list for more information).  Even though it may seem unbelievable to parents sometimes, children are actually motivated to develop positive social skills, like self-control, because they please the people who are important to them.

     

    What You Can Do:

    • Notice and celebrate good behavior and choices.  I saw how you shared your cars with Dante.  You did a great job taking turns.

    • Thank your child and show your appreciation. Thank you for helping me sweep the floor.  I appreciate your help.  When we work together as a family, our chores get done quicker and we can get back to playing.

    • Tell your child what you like about him or her.  You really have a great sense of humor— I love the jokes you tell. You are so kind to our puppy— I like how you are so gentle with him. Reminding a child of all the special and wonderful qualities they possess builds his self-esteem and promotes good behavior.

     

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