By Michelle Lurie, Psy.D., ABPdN.
Your child’s social-emotional development is as important as his or her cognitive and physical development. Unlike learning to walk and talk, however, social-emotional skills are not as easy to see and may therefore be more difficult to teach. One of the critical skills young children learn is the ability to develop self control. This is a skill that is critical to children’s school success and overall healthy development. By exercising self-control, your child can learn to make appropriate decisions and respond to stressful situations in ways that will be more likely to have positive outcomes.
Self-control means being able to express and cope with strong emotions in appropriate ways. For a toddler, this may mean saying “I’m mad at you” instead of biting. Self-control also involves thinking skills, as we decide which of our impulses to act on. For an older child this may be reflected in the ability to walk away from a situation rather than reacting impulsively. This enables children to cooperate with others, to cope with frustration, and to resolve conflicts.
How can you help your child learn self control?
Firstly, let your child know that you recognize her feelings. For example, if she hits his younger sister because she is playing with her Barbies, it is important to say “I know that you are mad right now because you don’t want to share, but hitting is not okay. You can wait your turn or go to your room and hit your pillow, but we do not hit other people”. Naming and recognizing feelings helps a child learn to manage emotions. Older children can be encouraged to think about alternative behaviors that would be more tolerable. Throwing a ball outside is acceptable, while throwing cars against the wall is not. This ability to substitute an acceptable action for one that is not acceptable is essential for functioning well in society. It may help your child to imagine a stop sign that she needs to obey and to think about a situation before responding.
Time-outs can also teach your child that it’s best to take some time alone in the face of frustration, instead of throwing a temper tantrum. However, rather than having your child in time-out for a fixed period of time (such as 3 or 4 minutes), ending time-outs as soon as your child has calmed down will also help your child improve his or her sense of self-control. It’s also a good idea to praise your child for not losing control in situations that are frustrating or difficult. Encourage children to “take a break” or a “time out” from a situation where they are feeling angry or upset.
It is also helpful to provide opportunities for your child to make choices. Present your child with two acceptable options, such as “Would you like get your shoes and socks first, or to brush your teeth first?” This helps him feel in control and lets him know that you trust him to make good decisions. However, make sure that you only give your child choices that are acceptable to you. For example, saying “Do you feel like going to the store?” when you do not have a babysitter at home and you have to buy groceries for dinner would not be a good idea! Asking a question can often lead to an answer of “no” when that may not be the desired response. Do not give options if there are none available.
Teaching your child to wait, to share, and to take turns also helps him learn self-control. This is something that he has to do on a regular basis when playing with peers and siblings. As much as possible, do not let one sibling be the one who consistently demands attention, gets to win the games, or gets his way. Setting a timer when your children are fighting over a toy, having him collect points for good behavior before he gets that desired toy or treat, or having him play quietly by himself while you help your older child with homework are ways in which he will learn self-control. Children can learn to resist interrupting others when they are talking. At the same time, parents should be sure to provide children with attention at appropriate times, so that they are less likely to interrupt inappropriately.
With your guidance and lots of practice, your child will be well equipped to work out conflicts with his peers later on. However, if your child frequently loses control and is continually argumentative, defiant, or impulsive, or rages at length on a regular basis, you may want to consult a professional. In addition, recognize that one of the best ways to help your child learn about self-control is to see you model it. Look at your own actions to see if you are managing stressful situations as well as you can, or if you need some assistance in this regard.