Are You One of the 42% of Parents Who Make this Mistake?

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When I speak at schools and community organizations, I get a lot of questions about tantrums and meltdowns. How can we stop them? Why can’t my child learn to self-regulate? Is there something wrong with my child? Do I need to get him evaluated? More often than not, I find that parents today expect kids to develop sophisticated skills much sooner than is developmentally possible.

While tantrums can be a huge source of frustration for parents (it’s difficult to know what to do when your child begins kicking and flailing for no apparent reason – and it can be embarrassing), most children don’t even begin to develop self-control until around age four. Begin is the important word in that last sentence. A four-year-old might not have tantrums as often as a two-year-old does, but parents should not expect preschoolers to have fully developed self-regulation skills.

Setting realistic expectations for child development helps reduce frustration in the family.

In fact, results of a new survey from Zero to Three show that there is an “expectation gap” that causes frustration for parents. Among other things, the survey revealed that 42% of parents believe that children have the ability to control their emotions (as in not having a tantrum) by the age of two. Yikes.

Instead of punishing children for what is often viewed as “negative behavior”, it helps to understand when kids develop different skills and how to guide them. Check out the facts below about child development with a few tips on putting these skills into action.

Impulse control.

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Remember the marshmallow experiment? Four-year-olds were put in a room with a marshmallow and were told that if they waited until the observer returned, they could eat the marshmallow and get a second one. Some children held out for two marshmallows while others ate the whole thing right after the observer left the room. The takeaway: Four-year-olds are beginning to develop impulse control skills, but not all children develop at the same pace.

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Give your kids a break! Impulse control is not an easy skill to develop. Look around you and you’ll find many adults who still struggle with this very skill.

Practice this: Board games are great tools for working on impulse control. Not only is turn taking a necessity when playing, but sometimes the spinner doesn’t go your way and you have to learn how to cope and continue playing.

Self-regulation.

When we stop worrying about what a tantrum might look like to others and learn to manage our emotions in response to tantrums, we see that tantrums are merely an expression of emotion. Are they the best way to express emotions? Probably not. But they are the best that young children know at the time.

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Instead of punishing children for expressing their emotions, it’s far more effective to empathize with them and guide them toward healthier (and less emotionally and physically exhausting) ways to express their emotions.

Practice this: Try an “anger thermometer” to help kids understand their emotions. Print or draw a large thermometer and have your child choose colors to match various emotions (green for calm, blue for sad, red for mad, yellow for happy). Ask your child to color his emotions and anger level in the thermometer each day. Talk about ways to go from red to green.

Sharing.

I hear from many parents that they worry their non-sharing child won’t be able to make friends. “Share nicely” is a phrase commonly heard at playgrounds. This is another skill that truly doesn’t begin to develop until between the ages of 3 and 4, and it takes time and practice to really learn to share.

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Practice this: Get in on the play! When parents join kids in pretend play, they help kids work through social issues and emotional development. Play the part of the animal that doesn’t like to share and see how your child solves the problem.

It’s important to remember that childhood is largely based on trial and error. Kids are learning new things each day and it’s a lot to process! Guide them toward the development of these social-emotional skills by remaining calm and teaching with compassion.

What do you think?

Are You One of the 42% of Parents Who Make this Mistake?

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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