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When and how it develops
Self-control is a skill that children learn over time (even adults sometimes have trouble restraining themselves). You need only look at a 9-month-old gleefully tossing food around to know that babies don't have much self-control — and we don't expect them to. But sometime soon after your child's first birthday, you'll find yourself beginning to hold him to a higher standard, expecting him to listen to you and at least try to do as you say. And by his third birthday you'll be insisting that he follow all sorts of rules, from not grabbing cookies out of the cookie jar to not hitting and biting his friends. Still, let's just say self-control is one of those areas where development may be steady but — at times — excruciatingly slow.
12 to 18 months The beginnings of self-control emerge as children begin to be more cooperative. That is, they are now a little more aware of their parents' expectations and can voluntarily obey simple requests — at least sometimes. However, since your 1-year-old is also driven to assert his independence, he may defy your wishes as well. Try asking him not to scream at the grocery store, and it's a toss-up whether he'll comply or ignore you: At this stage he gets so carried away making noise that he may not be able to stop even if he knows it's bothering you. Best to keep your temper in check and your expectations realistic — that is, head for the door if he's headed for a fit. "If you're warm and patient and don't expect too much from your young toddler, you're likely to get more cooperation than opposition," says Judith Hudson, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and faculty supervisor for the Douglass Child Study Center. "Show your happiness when your child complies with your requests, but be prepared to remove him from temptation when he can't."
19 months to 24 months Your child's making big improvements in the area of self-control at this stage. Research has shown that the ability to resist temptation — for example, waiting until everyone's seated before opening a present — improves significantly during these months. You can begin to expect your toddler to wait for you and not run out on the street while you pause to lock the front door or not to touch a hot stove or the remote control when you warn him off. You still need to be ready to follow up a prohibition with action — for example, putting the remote control out of reach — but you should be finding that verbal reminders are more effective than they used to be. Keep in mind, however, that since your child's self-control is still in the early stages it's easier for him to wait for an enjoyable activity than it is for him to stop one once he's engrossed. Giving your child a warning before leaving the playground, for instance, will often make the difference between a tantrum and a pleasant departure. He may not have a clear sense of time ("We're going in five minutes"), but he'll at least be prepared for what happens next.
This is also the age when children have lots of fights over sharing. One minute your child is playing nicely next to a friend in the sandbox, the next he's biting or kicking and his pal is screaming, all over a pail or shovel. Until your toddler's articulate enough to tell others what's bothering him, he'll lash out physically from time to time. Child development expert Nina Lief, author of The First Three Years of Life, says children this young are torn between wanting to do as their parents tell them ("Don't bite") and giving in to their impulses. They then are overcome by frustration and respond with bites, kicks, and tantrums.
25 to 30 months Because your toddler's verbal skills are getting better, he's also exerting more self-control. Language is very useful this way; now he can make his wants known and assert his desires without always acting on them — at least not immediately. Children can also use language to direct their own behavior. You may hear your 2-year-old saying "Be careful" over and over to himself as he climbs the stairs. At this age, you can capitalize on your child's desire to be "big" and competent. Praising mature behavior — "Wow, you put the blocks away all by yourself!" — is a potent motivator. You can distract your child from disruptive behavior and channel his energy into something productive by giving him a job to do. For example, when your child's about to dump out the silverware drawer, you can ask him to put a spoon at everyone's place at the table instead; if he throws his coat on the floor, he might be happy to hang it up on "his special hook."
You also have another powerful ally in your attempts to encourage self-control — shame. He's developing a conscience now, which is an immense force in his attempts to control his impulses. But it's also important not to capitalize on this by reprimanding him in a way that focuses on his character ("Only bad boys act mean toward their mommies"). Focus instead on the behavior: "We speak softly in the house; we don't yell." Explain why you don't like what he's doing ("When you yell at me like that, my ears hurt") and allow your child to work out this inner struggle on his own. Juggling his wants and needs versus this burgeoning inner voice will be the way he'll learn to exercise good judgment about his actions.
31 to 36 months Cognitively, children this age are developing a sense of the future and the ability to anticipate. This means that waiting for a turn or sharing a toy begins to make sense to your toddler as he realizes that in the future he's going to get his chance to put the dolly to bed or drive the fire truck. But you may still need to remind him that his turn is coming so he can stand the seemingly interminable wait.
He's also slowly beginning to develop empathy, allowing him to weigh his own desires against another's. He may not always do the right thing (his baby sister may cry because he won't let her on the trike, and he can tell she's upset, but he still doesn't give her a turn because he really wants to go for another spin). But at least he's starting to temper his own impulses by taking into account other people's feelings.
When to be concerned
There's no clear-cut timetable for when toddlers ought to learn self-control, but if you don't see any steady improvement over time, consult his doctor. You should also do so if your child seems overly aggressive toward others and can't control his outbursts or physical attacks. He may be under pressure or may feel intensely frustrated or upset about something he can't voice.
What happens next
Your child will be honing what he's learned in the years to come. According to the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, during the preschool years children learn that the simplest, quickest solution isn't always the best one. So rather than yanking a book away from a child who won't share, your child can learn to wait it out or walk away since the book doesn't matter to him as much as it does to his friend (and he knows he can grab it when his friend puts it down). This type of self-control has to be modeled and taught by parents and teachers, though; your child will learn best by example. By elementary school he'll be able to practice even greater self-restraint since he'll learn its value in making and keeping friends and succeeding academically. He'll also develop the ability to make better long-term decisions instead of going for what he wants right now this instant.