Location: Bradley Hospital

Learning Self-Control

Parenting Matters Minute:

Teens and Sleep


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Preschoolers' skills for behavioral self-control are often uneven. Although their skills for managing their own behavior are improving, preschoolers are often faced with new challenges that stress their abilities to use these skills. Examples of this may include: the transition to a preschool classroom, family changes or increased adult expectations. Preschoolers are just starting to understand the impact of their behavior on others.

What parents can do to help:

Keep your cool

Children can be overwhelmed by expressions of intense anger. This can make it difficult for them to effectively learn better ways to behave. Both positive and negative attention is very reinforcing to young children. A firm, but calm, reaction will give a clear message, without rewarding a behavior with your attention.

Use limit-setting strategies

Warnings can help a young child to regain control of his or her behavior. Warnings should not be phrased as questions, for example, "Do you want to have a Time Out?" Instead, warnings should emphasize your child's ability to regain control of his or her behavior, For example, "It is not okay to jump on the couch. If you continue to jump on the couch then you will need to go to Time Out."

Immediate consequences are more effective than delayed consequences. For young children, it is very difficult to connect behaviors and consequences if the consequences do not follow directly from the behavior.

Brief consequences are more effective than lengthy consequences.

For example:

  • Although one-minute-per-one-year is a good rule of thumb for Time Out (for example, four minutes for a four year-old), shorter Time Outs may be appropriate for some young children. Counting to ten is an effective way to help young children regain control.
  • Losing the privilege of playing with a toy for 30 minutes may be more effective than losing the toy for three days. For young children, three days is a lifetime! Being able to earn the toy back within a reasonable time frame provides the child with the motivation to make better choices because there is a positive consequence for doing so (getting the toy back).

Help children to learn new skills

Don't just tell a child what to do, show them. Children look to their parents, what they say and what they do, to learn how to behave. Don't just focus on what to do, focus on how to do it. For example:

  • Say "Try it this way," instead of "Don't do that!"
  • The statement, "Be good," may be confusing or overwhelming for a child. But, "You need to hold my hand and use your indoor voice," tells the child exactly what is expected of him.