Helping your toddler or your child of any age learn self-control can be very difficult because in order to be successful, you must also have good self-control. As a tired parent, this is not always easy. And so my first advice to you, different from all of the other advice I’ve seen on disciplining children, is to look after yourself as much as you can to make sure that you are as ready as you can be for the challenges of parenting.
A toddler sees himself or herself as a very powerful human being. He or she is moving on their own, can eat by themselves, is learning to manage bodily functions and is modelling everything you do. This developmental period is the time to be a good model and is the ideal time to guide the process of learning self-control.
To start with the most basic advice on discipline, here is a simple page of excellent suggestions that you can print out, from the website of the Canadian Pediatric Society. If you are looking for something with a bit more theory, this guide from the National Institutes for Health in the United States is very good.
With this advice in hand, let me offer you the biggest lesson that I learned about child discipline.
This lesson fixed in my mind after seeing my oldest child through her toddler years. What I learned is that our most basic activities, like eating and sleeping or active times, all follow a routine that becomes internally set. This is especially true of small children. In my experience, parents who do not follow their young children’s inner rhythms can expect trouble. A hungry or tired child is more likely to lose self-control, just as their tired or stressed parent does. It’s always best to be respectful of those needs and the payoff of recognizing and respecting them is that a child can more quickly develop self-control in other areas.
Another thing to remember is that very young children do not understand long, verbal explanations, so say things simply: “No, that’s hot!” You want your child to realize when you’re saying that something is dangerous, to stop immediately. If they do not stop, you will have to intervene to physically keep them safe. If they do stop, praise them – be sure they understand that they’ve done the correct thing.
You must also do your best to be consistent. If your child cannot clearly understand from you the best way to act, he or she will not be able to learn how to act. It is in this situation that one observes a child testing the limits of acceptable behavior. While some children test the limits regardless, not knowing the limits makes this far more likely.
The follow-up to consistency is following through. Following through is very difficult, especially in the grocery store line with all eyes on your screaming toddler who wants a treat. The first thing to try is to divert the child’s attention – for example, see if they can help you to unload the cart. You can remind them that there is a healthier treat at home. But it may just be that you will have to hold a screaming child to ensure that they don’t harm themselves and wait until they have settled down to pay for your groceries.
Most people in the store will be very sympathetic and even helpful, a reinforcement to your lesson that bad behavior is not acceptable. Another thing I remember when this happened to me was that all the other small children nearby managed to be “perfect” while my child was misbehaving. This was no accident since most children want to behave well and nothing focuses them better than someone their own age not managing their own behavior. Grocery store lines can also set the stage for an excellent opportunity to tell them how proud you are of them. In fact, say this whenever it applies – we can all use extra reminders that we are learning well.
Every parent has heard about time-outs and there is no more effective method to remind a child that self-control is absolutely necessary. Find a safe place for these and be prepared to stay with a very young child while they calm down. Many people use a timer but it is important that a child understand that he or she is taking the time to settle down and be ready to apologize for what they have done. If it takes resetting the timer several times for a child to settle, then reset the timer. A child who has settled will likely be sorry for what has happened and that is the sign that they are ready to finish a time out.
Adults modelling good self-control helps children learn good self-control as well – photo: K. Kruckenberg
I want to end back where I began and remind you how important your behavior modelling is in helping your child to learn self-control. If you are tired and stressed and not managing your own actions well, your child will notice. At the very least, their confusion about your distress will make it harder for them to know how to act. Explain to the extent that you can, “I’m worried (sad, upset, etc.) today.” Give yourself an easier time and be mindful of what might help you manage yourself. Find some things that you love to do with your child that you both enjoy and do those things.
We do not really teach our children self-control, we help them to learn. Every child deserves a parent who loves them enough to care that they learn this important lesson and, some days, you both deserve a day off to enjoy each other.
You can read more of Dr. Gail Beck’s work on The Scientific Parent here.