Samantha, a nine-month-old charmer, is frustrated as her mom puts her in the car seat for their ride home from daycare. The baby works herself into such a total tizzy that Mom has to take her out of the seat to soothe her down again.
Mary Lou, a rambunctious toddler, is gleefully opeing and closing the exam room drawers. Dad and I are trying to talk, but I am distracted by the clanging of drawers and fearful that the cabinet's instruments might go flying. Dad doesn't seem bothered by this chaos and continues to chat.
Three-year-old, Jerry, is playing with the basket of toys when I enter the exam room. Mom says, "It's time for your checkup so hop up on the table." The child does not seem to hear his mom and keeps on playing. After her third request, Jerry throws the toy with disgust into the basket and jumps noisily onto the exam table.
Mrs. Franks and her 7-year-old son are here for his check up. As I walk past the boy, he quietly pushes his foot out toward me in a feined effort to trip me up. I dodge his attempts with a little jump to the side. I'm thrown off gaurd by this child's unthoughtful move while his mother giggles.
Scenrio number one is understandable, number two challenging, number three aggravating, and number four is down right worrisome. My colleague, Dr. Barbara Howard of Johns Hopkins University, is fond of explaining that the goal of disciplining children is to help them be happy and successful adults. Most would agree that a child out of control is neither happy nor ultimately successful.
Can young children be taught self-discipline and self-control? I think so. Writings in the Zero to Three Journal highlight efforts parents can make early in a child's life to help their child move toward greater self-control and increased ability to find their way in the world. (http://www.zerotothree.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ter_key_social_selfcontrol&AddInterest=1157)
From birth to 12 months, children's parents can teach them to self comfort. Encouraging a baby to attach to a lovey (e.g., a blanket or teddy bear) can help her find internal means to self comfort. Taking a step-wise approach to comforting a fussy baby may help him demonstrate his own capabilities. (See http://www.hugyourbaby.com/calming.html) Redirecting a 12-month-old whose behavior is unacceptable moves that child to understand on some level that one behavior is acceptable and another is not.
The toddler years give parents ample opportunity to teach self-control. Toddlers are programmed to push a parent's buttons; the trick is not to act like a toddler yourself! Naming feelings ("I see you are mad!" "I can tell you feel really sad." "You are super happy right now.") gives children a feeling vocabulary. This language can be a tool to help a child learn to control, rather than to be controlled by, their feelings. In addition, plafully giving a child the opportunity to practice patience ("Let's see if we can count to five before I give you the cookie!") will help them practice skills of self-control.
Remember that a child's temperament certainly affects how to teach self-control and how easy this process of learning can be (or not!). Jorey always described her toddler as "low-key and easy to hang with!" On the other hand, Rachael's son is described as "full of beans and always on the go!" Rachael discovers early on that helping her son learn self-control will be one of her primary tasks as a mom.
Helping a child find their inner strength as well as to appreciate what it means to be part of a larger family can be a daunting task at times. Family, friends, and professionals may be of help. But your child is your greatest teacher as you come to understand his/her personality and needs. Learning what makes them tick - instead of what ticks you off - is a big step along the path!