When kids melt down in the middle of a crowded store, at a holiday dinner with
extended family, or at home, it can be extremely frustrating. But parents can help
kids learn self-control and teach them how to respond without just acting on impulse.
Teaching self-control is one of the most important things that parents can do for
their kids because these skills are some of the most important for success later in
Helping Kids Learn Self-Control
By learning self-control, kids can make appropriate decisions and respond to stressful
situations in ways that can yield positive outcomes.
For example, if you say that you're not serving ice cream until after dinner, your
child may cry, plead, or even scream in the hopes that you will give in. But with
self-control, your child can understand that a temper tantrum means you'll take away
the ice cream for good and that it's wiser to wait patiently.
Here are a few suggestions on how to help kids learn to control their behavior:
Up to Age 2
Infants and toddlers
get frustrated by the large gap between the things they want to do and what they're
able to do. They often respond with temper tantrums. Try to prevent outbursts by distracting
your little one with toys or other activities.
For kids reaching the 2-year-old mark, try a brief timeout in a designated area
— like a kitchen chair or bottom stair — to show the consequences for
outbursts and teach that it's better to take some time alone instead of throwing a
Ages 3 to 5
You can continue to use timeouts, but rather than setting a specific time limit,
end timeouts when your child calms down. This helps kids improve their sense of self-control.
And it's just as important to praise your child for not losing control in frustrating
or difficult situations by saying things like, "I like how you stayed calm" or "Good
job keeping your cool."
Ages 6 to 9
As kids enter school, they're better able to understand the idea of consequences
and that they can choose good or bad behavior. It may help your child to imagine a
stop sign that must be obeyed and think about a situation before responding. Encourage
your child to walk away from a frustrating situation for a few minutes to cool off
instead of having an outburst. Praise kids when they do walk away and cool off —
they'll be more likely to use those skills in the future.
Ages 10 to 12
Older kids usually better understand their feelings. Encourage them to think about
what's causing them to lose control and then analyze it. Explain that sometimes situations
that are upsetting at first don't end up being so awful. Urge kids to take time to
think before responding to a situation. Help them to understand that it's not the
situation that's upset them — it's what they think about the situation that
makes them angry. Compliment them as they use their self-control skills.
Ages 13 to 17
By now kids should be able to control most of their actions. But remind teens to
think about long-term consequences. Urge them to pause to evaluate upsetting situations
before responding and talk through problems rather than losing control, slamming doors,
or yelling. If necessary, discipline your teen by taking away certain privileges to
reinforce the message that self-control is an important skill. Allow him or her to
earn the privileges back by demonstrating self-control.
When Kids Are Out of Control
As difficult as it may be, resist the urge to yell when you're disciplining your
kids. Instead, be firm and matter of fact. During a child's meltdown, stay calm and
explain that yelling, throwing a tantrum, and slamming doors are unacceptable behaviors
that have consequences — and say what those consequences are.
Your actions will show that tantrums won't get kids the upper hand. For example,
if your child gets upset in the grocery store after you've explained why you won't
buy candy, don't give in — thus demonstrating that the tantrum was both unacceptable
Also, consider speaking to your child's teachers about classroom settings and appropriate
behavior expectations. Ask if problem-solving is taught or demonstrated in school.
And model good self-control yourself. If you're in an irritating situation in front
of your kids, tell them why you're frustrated and then discuss potential solutions
to the problem. For example, if you've misplaced your keys, instead of getting upset,
tell your kids the keys are missing and then search for them together. If they don't
turn up, take the next constructive step (like retracing your steps when you last
had the keys in-hand). Show that good emotional control and problem solving are the
ways to deal with a difficult situation.
If you continue to have difficulties, ask your doctor if family counseling sessions