Toddlers and Self-Control: A Survival Guide for Parents

boystakingturnsPulling the dog’s tail after you’ve told your child not to touch it. Hitting a friend who took the train she didn’t want two minutes ago. Running across the street after you’ve asked him to go together. These are typical moments that all come down to one thing: self-control, and toddlers’ lack of it.Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration and stress for both parents and children.

“Last night, my son had the biggest tantrum…I ended up giving in. But, I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Up against my son, I feel like I’m out of control. I don’t know if it’s the age or the stage, or I should have better parenting skills, but all the time I just feel so powerless.” (Rebecca from Washington, DC)

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Findings from a major research endeavor, Tuning In — conducted by ZERO TO THREE and The Bezos Family Foundation — revealed that thousands of parents of children five years and younger overestimate toddlers’ ability for self-control.

  • Over half of all parents (56 percent) believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age three.
  • Over a third (36 percent) believe that children under age two have this kind of self-control. Brain research shows that these skills start developing between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently.
  • Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of all parents believe that children are able to control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at one year or younger.
  • Almost half (42 percent) believe children have this ability by two years. Research shows this type of self-control is also just starting to develop between 3.5 and 4 years, and that it takes many more years for children to master the ability to manage their feelings. (And some of us adults are still working on this skill!)

So why do young children have so little self-control? The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over the emotional, impulsive part is not well developed in children under three. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than ask nicely for a turn.

Remember too that being able to recite a rule — Hands are not for hitting — is not the same as being able to follow it. Clever, verbal two-year-olds make it easy for parents to have an “expectation gap” since they seem to understand so much. But life with your toddler will be more joyful and less maddening when your expectations are in line with his abilities — when you see that your child is acting his age, and that he needs help to learn to manage his impulses. He is not purposefully trying to drive you crazy, as much as it may feel that way.

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