How to Teach (and Learn) Self-Control as a Parent


By: , – Hillary Copsey
  :  22 comments   :  26,424 Views

Any pediatrician or experienced parent will tell you that tantrums are just a fact of toddlerhood. Every child throws fits, and every parent struggles with how to deal with them.
What you're actually teaching is self-control, which is what makes it so difficult. That concept starts with you, and controlling yourself in the face of a screaming, irrational toddler is not always easy.
The official advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to distract, ignore and remove--in that order. On the surface, it seems simple. Distract the child when he starts fussing. If he is angry about leaving the playground, sing a silly song to redirect his attention and mood as you buckle him into the car seat. If that doesn't work and he continues to cry and yell, ignore it with the hope that he'll wear out the anger and frustration. And if that doesn't happen and he pitches a toy at your head instead, tell him sternly, ''No throwing!'' and remove the toys and other potential missiles from the car seat.
Simple--except you're now trapped in a vehicle with a kid screaming bloody murder because, after copious warnings that lunch was coming soon, you had the audacity to ask him to leave the playground. For food. Which he needs to survive.
Are you angry yet? Frustrated? Because I'm getting irritated just remembering this horrible experience--er, I mean, thinking about this hypothetical situation.
I am quick-tempered and impatient. These are not attributes that help me deal with my children's tantrums. But I've found one of the things that helps the most is acknowledging triggers and personality traits that make tantrums worse. For example, a screaming kid still moving toward the exit, I can deal with. But a kid rooted to the spot and screaming will set me right over the edge. I've learned to not even try to herd the boys when they throw fits in public; there's just too much potential for me to lose my temper. Instead, I just toss them over my shoulder, removing everyone from the situation. Looking at the boys, I know my little guy, 2, gets wild and fussy when he's tired, and my oldest rarely flips out anymore unless he's embarrassed. So, I take naps seriously and I'm teaching my 4-year-old to laugh at himself.
The goal, really, is to avoid tantrums. I know that sounds impossible. I'm not saying your kids aren't going to yell and fuss and generally act like fools. They will and probably at the most inopportune times. The goal is to head off the worst of it, the kicking and hitting, biting and flailing. You do not want your child to be a danger to himself or others.
As I said, you're teaching self-control. That starts by teaching them how they can act when they're angry or frustrated.
''Don't flip out. Ask for help.'' We say this to our 2-year-old half a dozen times a day. If things don't work perfectly right away, he wants to panic and scream (I don't know where he gets that), so we're teaching him that a better choice is to ask for help. The screaming stops, he makes his request, we help him and all is right in the world.
''It's OK to be angry. It's not OK to scream/hit/throw toys/bite/pinch.'' There's another phrase you hear often in our house. I think it's pretty self-explanatory.
Another one we use, usually as a last resort when we're at the removing stage we talked about earlier: ''You can choose to throw a fit. I choose not to listen to this. Go to your room until you get it together.''
What I took too long to realize is these phrases pertain to me as well. I can't be slamming around the house or screaming at the boys to quit their screaming or throwing a tantrum over a dinner recipe not working.
I need to ask for help--and that includes from my boys. Young children can be amazingly helpful if they feel truly needed and useful. Two months ago, I was flipping out every night trying to take care of the kids and dinner and the dog after work. No one was listening, everyone was yelling and I didn't have enough hands to do everything. Finally, I broke down and asked the boys if they could help and sorted out jobs they could handle. Tonight, the boys fed, watered and took the dog out to go to the bathroom and play without even being asked. I fixed dinner with a 2-year-old volunteer while the 4-year-old drew pictures.
I need to say what I really feel--not vent my feelings with violence.  A couple years ago, my husband and I got into a fight before work. Still angry, I loaded the boys into the car and slammed the door. I grumbled and snapped. ''Momma, are you mad at Daddy?'' my oldest asked. I said yes and he looked at me thoughtfully in the rearview mirror. ''You should hug him and say you're sorry.'' He was right. It was more productive than grumbling under my breath.
And sometimes, when all else fails, I need to remove myself from the situation. My boys each have blankies and when we send them to their rooms, they suck on the silky edges of these ''lovies'' and burrow their fingers into holes they've made in the patchwork. It calms them. We adults don't have blankies, but we need to figure out something that soothes us as quickly. My little one is hard-headed and stubborn, and everything, every single thing, is a fight with him to see who's in control. Sometimes, I put him in timeout and then, after he's finished his punishment, I take a timeout myself. I find my ''lovey,'' so to speak. I read a book. I make a quick call to my mom for moral support. I hug my husband. I go hide in the bathroom to take a few calming breaths in silence. I do something to make it so my chest does not feel as if it will explode with frustration.
I can't tell you what your ''lovey'' is. But I can tell you that you need to find one. You might need one more than your child does.

Hillary Copsey is a newspaper features editor in Florida with experience writing about everything from population trends to health-care issues. As the mother of two boys, she also is versed in searching for daycares, cooking healthy dinners on the fly and playing with trucks. She co-writes the blog Not raising brats. She writes about parenting for dailySpark and

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  • 22
    This article was so helpful! Thank you!!!! Just to know that other parents indeed experience the things that I feel like I'm alone in with my kids. It gets so hard to remember that they feel things all the same as we do and don't know how to voice it. I'm working hard with my husband and my kids ( and myself) to better learn self control. - 7/18/2017   10:18:16 PM
  • 21
    I enjoyed this article even though my children are grown and in their own homes/families now. I liked the idea of having a "lovey" for oneself. Too often, food was my lovey. So I need to give that idea a lot of thought.
    Thanks! - 3/11/2017   11:42:15 AM
  • 20
    Thanks for sharing your insights :-) I hope to put them to use, hopefully not soon, but when I feel my temper rising with my almost two year old, I'll remember your suggestions - 2/11/2013   6:19:05 AM
  • 19
    I'm grateful someone else admits to having patience issues too! My oldest is a master at pushing my buttons, probably because she is just like me. - 1/27/2013   5:32:14 PM
  • 18
    I really hope I can use the with my own children, once I have them and they get this age. I enjoyed this article! - 11/4/2012   10:20:35 AM
  • 17
    I used to have enough patience for 2 people, but in recent years, unfortunately it has flown the coop. I usually have to go hide out in the bedroom and let my husband run interference for me until I can get a few good, deep breaths and calm down before the fit hits the shan. - 9/10/2012   2:18:11 PM
  • 16
    Thank You! I don't even have grand kids to worry about but I still need to find a lovey for myself. College kids get my goat sometimes too! ;-) - 9/10/2012   3:53:44 AM
  • 15
    I needed to read this on a particularly challenging day with my not-wanting-to-nap toddler and my teething and cranky 7 month old. Hmm...what is my lovey? - 8/29/2012   3:51:36 PM
  • 14
    If everything, every single thing, is a fight, as you said, you might be micro-managing your child and trying to control too much. From experience of raising 4 kids, I can tell you that if you fight with your child about every issue, when he/she is an adult, he will never feel close to you. - 8/29/2012   2:21:56 PM
  • 13
    One very freeing life concept I learned was that we have AS MUCH patience as we need; we simply have to reach deep down inside and pull up more. And surprisingly enough, I found that this is true. An "impatient" person, or being "out of patience" is a choice--not a given! Not only is this a liberating idea, it's also quite empowering. - 8/29/2012   12:39:42 PM
  • 12
    Scholastic had a book with "bombaloo" in the title. It helped my kids realize they were going to get upset, and ways to deal with it. - 8/29/2012   11:03:09 AM
  • 11
    Really the key is how we respond in the those situations. Children/humans are programmed to learn by modeling the behaviours they see in others with parents being the primary models, at least until a little later in life.

    I also think it is important that we don't make HAVING an emotional response to a situation wrong. We are emotional beings - its healthy to acknowledge our emotions, not just learn to stuff them. So it is a fine line to teach that emotions are OK, but the behaviours might not be.

    Would use caution in sending kids to their rooms to cool off - the message is that being upset is not acceptable. I try to communicate that they have the right to an emotional response and they can stomp and hold their breath, they just can't do it where it impacts the rest of the family. The common space, which includes cars, is sacrosanct, certain pro-social behaviours are the only ones we do in those spaces. Anything else we might choose to do has to be done in our own space where we don't impact others.

    I agree teaching kids, and adults, how to talk about what is going on and asking for help is a good strategy, but sometimes everyone just needs a few minutes to cool off before they are in a position to talk - we release hormones when we have an emotional reaction that restrict our logical thinking, so we need time for those hormones to move through our system.

    - 8/29/2012   8:12:22 AM
  • 10
    Okay... some helpful ideas / suggestions... things I need to practice and apply.

    It's too easy to refer back to what you know, and that may not have been healthy nor appropriate. (In my case it was not.) -- I will have to be intentional about making some changes. - 8/29/2012   1:54:28 AM
    Thanks to THE LORD my children are models for the days we are living now. They are 27 (boy), 25 (girl) and a nephew (25). They still here in our home. No problem with them. - 8/28/2012   11:43:44 PM
  • 8
    I raised five children and they have all turned out well. - 8/28/2012   6:54:28 PM
  • 7
    That was very helpful! - 8/28/2012   6:41:53 PM
  • 6
    That was a very good and insightful article. I know when my two boys got to fighting or just got on my nerves, instead of dealing with them in my angry mood, I'd go to my room for 5 minutes and relax. Then if the problem still persisted, I'd be in a much better mood to deal with it. (Took me a while to figure that one out. lol )
    I agree with just picking them up and going to the car. Not the best form, but sometimes nothing else worked!

    Again, nice article.

    - 8/28/2012   1:51:21 PM
  • 5
    Thank you so much - what a great piece of advice. I am pretty sure my "lovey" is looking at pictures and video of my daughter - I love to look at all the cute things she has done and the funny ways she has done things and how beautiful and perfect she is (and can be). Calms me right down. Now I just have to remember that when I am stressed/angry. Thanks again! - 8/28/2012   1:45:24 PM
    Great Great article and so what I needed to read!!!! - 8/28/2012   12:51:13 PM
  • 3
    Sometimes those things work with teenagers as well. My son doesn't throw tantrums anymore but it helps sometimes to let him know that I am overwhelmed and need his help. He may not always do what I want him to do but he will at least remove whatever part he's contributing to the "overwhelm" and not compound the situation. - 8/28/2012   11:36:42 AM
  • 2
    My kids are mostly grown now, my youngest just turned 18, but when they threw tantrums as little ones, I just tuned it out. If we were in a store I just picked them up and left, in the car I turned the radio up and ignored the crying etc. and told them not to act that way. And they seem to have grown up to be good kids/adults. :) - 8/28/2012   11:03:39 AM
  • 1
    My "Lovey"-shutting the door and doing a puzzle. removing myself, calming myself, distracting myself. Work wonders! - 8/28/2012   10:31:20 AM

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