TEACHING IMPULSE CONTROL TO A TODDLER

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
TEACHING IMPULSE CONTROL TO A TODDLER
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

The toddler grabs the glass paperweight.

“Put it back on the desk.”

Entranced with the object, the child appears oblivious to his father’s words. Wisely, the father extracts the paperweight from the small fingers. The child falls in a heap on the floor.

“You can’t have it. It might break.” More sobs. “I’m sorry I had to take it away from you. But when you can’t stop yourself, I need to help you.”

After a violent heave of the child’s chest, the sobs begin to space out.

“It could break so easily. That would make you sad too.” The child looks up at his father through his tears. “Would you like a hug?” The child holds out both arms. He’s forgotten about the paperweight.

Sometime during his second year, a toddler discovers cause and effect. I drop the paperweight. It breaks. I climb on the coffee table. I fall down and hurt myself.

Until this understanding is achieved, a parent must always be present to counteract the toddler’s lack of judgment. Even then, the child will have trouble using his knowledge of cause and effect to guide his behavior when his impulses hold sway.

Discipline at this age is the gradual teaching of control to this young bundle of impulses. Impulse control is not learned instantly. Parents of toddlers know that such episodes are bound to repeat themselves countless times every day.

The parent with the paperweight tested the child’s response to words alone and quickly realized that words were not enough. Had he repeated the request several times, it would have been increasingly unclear to the child that his father meant it. The words would have lost their potential to stand alone, as they will more often in the next year or so. As soon as the spoken instructions went unheeded, the father moved in and retrieved the paperweight.

Had he stopped there, he would simply have demonstrated that he had more control over the situation than his son did. Instead, he explained why he had to take over. Then he gave his son a moment to relax before helping him to imagine his own feelings had the precious object been damaged. Most important, he left his son with the feeling that one day he would be able to control himself.

Self-discipline means that a child is motivated to control himself because it matters to him, not just to others. Having learned self-discipline, a child can then balance his own and others’ needs. You are laying the groundwork for learning for years to come.

Guidelines for Impulse Control:

  • First get your child’s attention. Look him in the eye to be sure he is focusing on your message.
  • Make clear that he can’t act on the impulse.
  • If necessary, physically stop him from doing what you have forbidden.
  • When possible, offer the child an alternative. “You can have this instead.” This is one way to teach problem-solving. Make the alternative a take-it-or-leave-it offer, not a negotiation.
  • Sympathize with the child’s frustration or disappointment. “It feels terrible when you can’t have what you want.” You’re not teaching the child to give up all his wishes and dreams, only to hold back on those that can’t be acted on. You are not trying to teach him to like all the rules, just to manage his negative feelings about them so they don’t overwhelm him.
  • Help him understand why – in simple terms – his wish can’t come true.
  • Comfort him, and offer him your faith that he can learn, little by little, to control himself.
  • When a day is filled with “no’s,” find something to which you can say “yes.” This helps a child to see discipline as an act of love, not as a response to something “bad” in him.
  • Don’t take your child’s misbehavior personally, especially the repeated testings. If you see them as a personal attack, you are bound to respond in kind. Instead, look for what he is trying to learn with his misbehavior, so that you can respond with the teaching he needs.
  • Share this responsibility for discipline, and for teaching, with the other adults in your child’s life.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.