How Toddlers Learn Self-Control

Child running away A Connective Parent asked about how toddlers learn self-control. Every parent needs real-life solutions to tantrums.

Q. My two and a half year old is in the heart of his terrible twos with lots of tantrums especially when he’s had it by the end of the daycare week. But what I don’t understand is when he seems fine, eating his yogurt and berries that he loves in his highchair, and suddenly, with no apparent emotion, he flings his bowl across the room making a horrible mess. What am I supposed to do then? Other times, he runs away from me and doesn’t listen when I yell to him to stop. What do I do to get him to listen? Am I’m allowing this behavior by not punishing him?

A. Impulses are a strange thing. We don’t know where they come from (maybe a brain scientist does) and certainly can’t see them coming. There is no way to prepare yourself or to head them off at the pass. They come from deep inside and often don’t seem to have any connection to anything—except impulse.


It’s About Expectations

A two year old is learning about his body and all the new things he can do with it. Unlike the younger version of himself, he now has self-awareness. He knows he is separate from you and can decide what to do and not to do. His desire for autonomy is growing at the same time his need for you is as intense as ever. His life is a conundrum. He often doesn’t know how to control himself.

Toddler TantrumIt’s important to know that a throw, a hit, a bite, a tantrum comes from this confused place inside. Impulsive behavior is the result. Punishing him is not only pointless but can be quite damaging to his natural development. Punishment means you are holding power over him and forcing him into misery. This is the opposite of what he needs. 

What You Can Do

It’s right that you are clear and strong with your objection and upset over his behavior. Remove him from the highchair saying something like, That is not okay. I am angry that you threw your bowl (not: You make me angry). I need to clean it up now. This is too messy for you to help. Of course if it’s something easy for him to pick up or sweep up, be sure and have him do that. If emotions are involved, wait until they are down. Then go back and hand him the tools to help clean it up. Giving him a task when his emotions have calmed supports his need for autonomy and self-control.Toddler Cleaning

If you scream at him, he will feel more confused and upset which will increase his stress and the likelihood of more aggressive behavior. And if you hold in your anger, he does not learn the natural consequences of his behavior—throwing his food is not okay and you will be angry when that happens. It’s a fine balancing act. You can express anger while remaining calm and clear.

Sometimes he knows what he’s not supposed to do and does it anyway. He is learning his limits, but to do that, he must test them to see what you will do. Perhaps when he runs off, he’s playing a game and wants you to chase him. Perhaps he’s thinking, let’s see what she does this time. It’s all a learning curve.


Consistentency Is Key

Toddler TantrumIt’s important for you to be consistent with how you handle yourself. Don’t let him get away with it sometimes and other times lose your cool and scream. Remaining firm without being reactive is one of the hardest things for a parent because, of course, you’re scared. He may literally be in danger or you’re afraid he’s never going to follow directions. 

Your fear will easily interfere and lead you into reactivity. Don’t kid yourself and think you must learn how to stop this behavior. This is not about you. Impulsivity is the name of the developmental game with toddlers. This is his job—to push the limits and to experiment with what he knows he can do. Your job is to hold him steady and safe. So as he gradually grows out of his impulsivity (different ages for different kids), he will grow into knowing what the expectations of him are. 

If you react differently each time, if you scream and yell, or if you punish or threaten, he will remain confused about what his expectations are and will continue to test to try to figure it out. Of if he feels badly about himself because the message he receives is I’m bad, he will continue to behave badly—intentionally as opposed to impulsively. 

You will be able to remain more consistent when you understand that it is not your job to stop this impulsivity. Your job is to provide a safe container for him in which to conduct his experiments.



Teaching Your Children Self-Control

Is It Ever Effective to Take Away Privileges?