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Health & Parenting

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Preschoolers: Building Self-Control - Topic Overview

Gaining self-control is one of the biggest challenges that children face between the ages of 2 and 5. Children need guidance, clear limits, and patient parents during this time of behavioral and emotional struggles. They also need interaction with other children and adults to help them learn self-control and self-confidence.

Recommended methods of promoting self-control

Children learn to control their emotions best when parents and caregivers:

  • Consistently model self-control. Children learn by example.
  • Teach children what it means to behave well. Children who are rewarded for behaving well learn to get attention in positive ways. For example, by hearing "Great job! You used your words when you were angry instead of hitting," a child feels good and learns that this attention is better than being reprimanded for aggressive behavior.
  • Teach children to understand the feelings of others (empathy). For example, asking "How do you think your friend felt when you were teasing her?" helps your child understand that his or her actions affect others. Children are not born with a sense of empathy. Parents and caregivers help them learn this important trait.
  • Use distraction. Finding a replacement activity for a misbehaving child works well during the first year or two. For example, a child who is bothering a pet may be distracted with a toy. The technique may continue to work with preschool children. But its effectiveness will gradually fade.
  • Use time-outs properly and sparingly.
  • Withhold attention selectively. Children, especially preschoolers, crave acceptance and attention. Completely ignoring a misbehaving child is effective in curbing minor but annoying behavior problems, such as whining or complaining. This technique takes patience on behalf of the parents, but when it is used repeatedly, it can be very effective.

Avoid physical punishment

Do not spank or hit your child. Some parents use spanking, hitting, or other forms of physical punishment to discipline children. Despite a common argument that physical punishment works because it makes a memorable impression on the child, this type of discipline teaches children:

  • To resent and fear their parents.
  • That aggression works to get people what they want. Parents who model aggression by physical punishment encourage their child to use aggression themselves.
  • To feel shame or humiliation, which damages their emerging self-esteem.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: September 09, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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