How to Teach Toddlers Ways to Control Impulses

A toddler can go from peaceful to meltdown in about 60 seconds flat, and some kids are naturally more impulsive than others. However, for your little one’s safety — and your sanity — she must learn some impulse control as she gets older. Consistent boundaries and a patient, reasonable approach will help your little one gain equilibrium in time.


Kids learn a lot more from what you do than what you say. If you want kids to be patient, you’ve got to practice patience yourself. How do you respond when you’re stuck at a traffic light? Do you yell when your little one makes a mess, or do you help her clean it up? Nobody’s perfect, but if you can usually manage stress with grace, your little one will slowly learn from your example.


Praise is like sugar — a little bit is all you need. When you see your little one waiting patiently for a snack or sharing with a friend, speak up. Give specific praise like, “You were hungry, but you waited quietly while I got your snack. Great job!” or “Sometimes it’s hard to share, but you asked for a turn on the swing and waited. Nice work.” We all like a pat on the back and these simple acknowledgements help kids understand the rules of civility.


Remember Stanford University’s Walter Mischel and his marshmallow test in the 1960s? Mischel found that children who were willing to wait 15 seconds to eat a marshmallow were more self-disciplined as they grew into adulthood. Why not try your own marshmallow test at home? It’s not a great idea to routinely deprive your kids or make them go hungry for hours on end. On the other hand, waiting a few minutes won’t kill them, and may actually help them develop impulse control. Contrary to popular belief, little ones can go without a snack for more than an hour.

They can drink water instead of juice or soda, and they can wait a few minutes while you’re on the phone. When your little one starts making demands, calmly and cheerfully say, “I’m getting you a snack in five minutes. Thanks for waiting patiently.” Then make sure you follow through so kids know you’re trustworthy.


One secret many adults use to delay gratification is distraction. A marathoner at the 22-mile mark is usually in physical agony. How does he keep going? By forcing his mind to think about something other than his aching limbs. You can teach this same trick to your child.

Perhaps you’re waiting at the doctor’s office and your little one wants a snack or a toy. Say something like, “We can’t do that right now, so let’s think about something else. Let’s think about how much fun it’s going to be to go to grandma’s tomorrow for dinner. What do you think she’ll make?”

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