Emotions & Self-Awareness Self-Control: How to Help Three-Year-Olds Make Good Choices

Part of growing up is learning how to manage our emotions and exercise self-control so that we can treat ourselves and others with respect. Sometimes that means resisting what we want to do in the moment (like throwing something when we’re mad) and making a more thoughtful choice instead. Three-year-olds can begin to view situations from another person’s perspective ― a useful tool in helping them control their impulses. For example, parents can help them understand that grabbing toys can make a playmate sad and taking turns can make playing more fun. 

Here are some ways you can foster self-control in your three-year-old:

Acknowledge When They Exercise Self-Control

When your child is tempted to respond one way but resists, acknowledge their self-control. This might sound like: "You were mad and wanted to hit, but you stopped yourself! Good work!"

"Get Out the Mad" Cookies

Baking cookies can be a great activity to do with your child, both to build measurement skills and to give your child an outlet to knead cookie dough.

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Teach Them Simple Strategies

Kids of every age feel overwhelmed by emotions or impulses, and they need simple tools that they can use to regain their equilibrium and make good choices. For example, "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" provides memorable musical prompts about how kids can respond to emotional stress, such as: 

  • "When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four."
  • "When you wait, you can play, sing or imagine anything!" 
  • "You can take a turn, and then I'll get it back." 

You can help children develop self-control with similar simple, memorable strategies. Help them verbalize both what they can't do and what they can, such as, "When I'm mad, I can’t hit my brother, but I can take deep breaths or squeeze my ball." You can also model the connection between moods and healthy eating, exercise and sleeping: "Sometimes when I'm frustrated, I eat a healthy snack or take a nap to help me feel better."

Calm Your Engines

You can help your child settle for nap or calm down after an exciting or anxious time by using breathing techniques and these printable posters from Thomas and Friends.

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Distract, Redirect and Change the Situation

For very young children, distraction and redirection can help them calm down and regain their focus. For example, it may be too hard to simply sit quietly and wait their turn for a toy ― so engage them in playing with something else, singing a song or pointing out objects in the room that may attract their attention. This could also mean sitting on the opposite end of the couch so they won't be tempted to poke a sibling or having fewer toys out so clean-up feels more manageable. 

Learning to Wait

Waiting in line or waiting for a turn can be difficult for children. Work with your child to create an idea poster showing what to do while waiting.

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Help Your Child Manage Emotions with Daniel Tiger

Through imagination, creativity and music, Daniel and his friends learn how to manage big and overwhelming feelings using strategies grounded in the teachings of Mister Rogers.

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Activity Finder: Learn With Your Three-Year-Old

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