Teach your child self-control

How to help your toddler develop behaviour skills and harness all that energy…


Recent studies show that children don’t actually develop the ability to control their impulses until they’re at least 3 years old, and even then it can be a huge effort.


Kitty Hagenbach, a psychologist specialising in parenting issues (babiesknow.com), agrees that it’s perfectly normal for toddlers to act on their every impulse. ‘Impulsiveness is a child’s natural expression of themselves,’ she says. ‘It’s not wrong, in fact it’s a very important developmental stage. Our role as parents is to gently steer those powerful impulses in a positive direction.’

Hollie Smith (holliesmith.co.uk), a mum of two, and author of Cool, Calm Parent (£7.99, White Ladder Press), says that for toddlers under 3, a lack of self-control is perfectly normal. ‘They’re simply too young to understand the concept, which is something to bear in mind when you’re being driven nuts by your little one’s latest display of impulsiveness. So before you lose your rag, try to remind yourself it’s normal, not naughty.’

Having realistic expectations of your toddler’s abilities can help you handle those times when your child’s impulses might overwhelm him – and you. ‘For example, most toddlers just won’t be able to sit at a table for a prolonged period of time, so insisting on it is likely to lead to outbursts of impulsive behaviour, such as food thrown on the floor or manic wriggling until they can get down,’ says Kitty. Accept your child’s limitations and work around them. Learn to anticipate the flashpoints that mean he is likely 
to behave impulsively.’

Toddler impulses can seem wild and inexplicable, but understanding the feelings behind your child’s actions is the first step to helping him express himself more appropriately. ‘Try vocalising your child’s emotions to him. For example, say, “I see you really want to play with that toy, but someone else is playing with it now. Let’s play with this puzzle together until it’s your turn for the toy.”’

It helps to remember that when toddlers act impulsively, it’s the way in which they’re trying to understand their world. That’s not to say boundaries aren’t important, however. ‘Keep explanations short and simple – children under 3 will only register that you’re cross with them, without understanding why,’ says Rachel Goodchild (rachel-goodchild.com)
‘Most children aren’t naughty at this age; they’re just exploring and seeing how far they can go.’When a child resists the boundaries, it can be tempting to give in to avoid a tantrum, but, says Kitty, it’s especially important to stick to your guns at those times. A toddler who wants to draw on the wall might get upset if you don’t let him, but he needs to learn that your walls aren’t the place for him to express his creativity! Being told ‘no’ now will save upset in the long run. Kitty explains: ‘Those experiences are really important for helping children develop cognitive connections – in other words, they’ll discover the world doesn’t stop turning just because they can’t do everything they want to!’


Helping a toddler control his impulses shouldn’t be rushed. It takes time and requires encouragement and patience from parents. Remember, this stage of unabashed self-expression can be wonderful to witness, and it won’t last forever.‘A toddler who acts impulsively literally isn’t thinking,’ says Kitty. ‘He’s just experiencing a great whoosh of enthusiasm for doing what he fancies, when he fancies.’ Self-control comes through learning how to interact with the world but it’s a gradual process. Seeing the challenges as a chance to learn together can help make it more manageable. As Hollie says, ‘If all else fails, remind yourself that self-control will come in time. Eventually.’

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