Part of growing up is learning how to manage our emotions and exercise self-control so that we can treat ourselves and others with respect. Sometimes that means resisting what we want to do in the moment (like throwing something when we’re mad) and making a more thoughtful choice instead. Three-year-olds can begin to view situations from another person’s perspective ― a useful tool in helping them control their impulses. For example, parents can help them understand that grabbing toys can make a playmate sad and taking turns can make playing more fun.
Acknowledge When They Exercise Self-Control
When your child is tempted to respond one way but resists, acknowledge their self-control. This might sound like: “You were mad and wanted to hit, but you stopped yourself! Good work!”
Teach Them Simple Strategies
Kids of every age feel overwhelmed by emotions or impulses, and they need simple tools that they can use to regain their equilibrium and make good choices. For example, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” provides memorable musical prompts about how kids can respond to emotional stress, such as:
“When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”
“When you wait, you can play, sing or imagine anything!”
“You can take a turn, and then I’ll get it back.”
You can help children develop self-control with similar simple, memorable strategies. Help them verbalize both what they can’t do and what they can, such as, “When I’m mad, I can’t hit my brother, but I can take deep breaths or squeeze my ball.” You can also model the connection between moods and healthy eating, exercise and sleeping: “Sometimes when I’m frustrated, I eat a healthy snack or take a nap to help me feel better.”
Distract, Redirect and Change the Situation
For very young children, distraction and redirection can help them calm down and regain their focus. For example, it may be too hard to simply sit quietly and wait their turn for a toy ― so engage them in playing with something else, singing a song or pointing out objects in the room that may attract their attention. This could also mean sitting on the opposite end of the couch so they won’t be tempted to poke a sibling or having fewer toys out so clean-up feels more manageable.