You might expect a young child to be impulsive and lack self-control, but like learning his colors, this is a skill that he needs to practice early in life. Children form the foundations for self-control during the first five years of life, according to Ida Rose Florez, PhD, assistant professor of early childhood education at Arizona State University. Like most developing skills, practice, direction and good modeling go a long way toward ending those toddler tantrums.
Developing impulse control is more than teaching a toddler to use inside voices. It involves a complicated process of children regulating their thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and responding appropriately. For example, while playing a game with your preschooler, she may feel an impulse to play out of turn. By telling her that her turn is next, you give her an opportunity to control that impulse. She can then decide to wait for her turn, grab the spinner and move her piece anyway, or get upset. Sometimes controlling her impulses will take more than good intentions. A 3-year-old might decide to wait her turn, then sit on her hands to keep her from reaching for the spinner.
Impulse control is learned gradually over time. Expecting a toddler to be patient for more than a handful of minutes might not work out for either of you. Keep a child’s age and temperament in mind when forming expectations. Forcing a child to use more impulse control than she has is not going to help her learn the skill. Also, shielding a child from difficult situations keeps her from valuable practice time. Children learn to self-regulate themselves with practice, and experience is knowledge. Do not fear a restaurant, although you may want to avoid five-course dinners with white tablecloths. A 3-year-old who has been in a child-friendly restaurant will better understand how long she has to wait to be served than the child who has never had the experience.
One of the best ways for a child to learn impulse control, or a lack of control, is from watching others. Check your own responses to frustrating situations. When you lose your keys, do you stomp around the house shouting about it, or do you take a more calm approach? Try applying the same self-control you want to see from your child next time you are behind a Sunday driver on the freeway.
Everyone loses it once in awhile, and it might happen more often for young children just learning to develop self-control. Tantrums happen, and sometimes they happen in embarrassing places like the grocery store. Giving in to a toddler’s tantrum only enforces the behavior. Part of learning self-control is learning what doesn’t work. Instead, try a time out, even if it is in a corner of the grocery store or the parking lot. Tell the child time out lasts until she is calm enough to continue your shopping trip.