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Preschoolers: Building Self-Control


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 behavioural and emotional struggles. They also need interaction with other children and adults to help them learn self-control and self-confidence.

Here are some tips that parents and caregivers can use to help children learn to control their emotions.

  • 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 behaviour.

  • 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 their actions affect others. 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.

    Time-out works best when children do something that they know is not acceptable and just won't stop, such as hitting or biting. Time-out is not effective if it is used too often or if it is used for behaviours that are not within a child's control. For example, time-out is not appropriate for children who accidentally wet their clothes instead of using the toilet.

  • Withhold attention selectively.

    Children, especially preschoolers, crave acceptance and attention. Completely ignoring a misbehaving child is effective in curbing minor behaviour 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.

Don't hit or spank your child

Physical punishment is not an effective method of managing behaviour. This type of discipline teaches children:

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


Current as of: March 1, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics