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The Whole Child
Setting Limits:
Helping Children Learn Self-Regulation
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By setting limits for children, you help them learn self-regulation, that is, how to set limits for themselves. The process of learning self-regulation and self-control begins in infancy, as babies begin to develop a sense of self. You can help by noticing your baby's cues and signals, providing responsive care, and making sure she has secure attachments to the other adults who care for her. From the start, set clear limits and provide simple explanations ("No biting. That hurts mommy.") As your baby grows, try to be consistent as you express expectations and set rules or consequences. The goal is to guide children and set limits so that they feel supported and valued, not judged and rejected.

Learning to Deal with Frustration
The process of learning self-control is linked very closely with how a child feels about herself and the frustrations that are part of day-to-day life. Children need help and practice building their frustration tolerance. One of the best ways to make this happen is to provide opportunities for children to make their own choices and decisions. Helping them stick to decisions can be difficult, but it is important for children to experience the consequences of their choices (at least some of the time.) Similarly, when you give young child a choice, honor their decision. Of course, not everything can be a choice and not everything is negotiable. Children should not be allowed to hurt themselves or other people (verbally or physically) or to destroy property. They cannot dominate every family interaction. Sometimes adults have to say "no."

Aggressive Behavior
Physical aggression (biting, pushing, hitting, throwing) is very common in the early years. Very often, episodes of aggression can be prevented before they begin. Anticipation is always helpful and relieves stress for adults and young children alike. When possible, alert children before transitions, such as the end of playtime, leaving an outing, or the arrival or departure of guests. Rewarding desired behavior will help children learn what is expected of them. When trouble repeats itself, analyze the situation and make changes that get to the root of the problem: next time, go to the library after lunch, or let the twins each pick a friend to invite over to play. Have as few rules as possible, but make the ones you do have stick. Be persistent because it often takes repeated experience for learning to take place.

Taking Action
When young children play together, moods can shift quickly, and tension can quickly build or resolve. Over time, parents want to teach children how to solve their own problems. But when is it best to get involved, and when should children be allowed to handle the situation themselves? Ask yourself: If this continues, what is the likelihood that someone will get hurt or something will be damaged? If trouble is really brewing, be decisive. Take action before your child does.

Unfortunately, children don't always stop hitting, grabbing or throwing simply because we ask them to. In these cases, these steps may help:

  • Tell your child specifically what you expect her to do, and help move her in that direction.
  • If necessary, remove the child from the immediate situation, but keep her with you.
  • Discuss feelings and rules after she is calmer.
  • Involve the child in deciding when it is time to return to the previous activity.
  • Help her return and be more successful.
  • If she repeats the behavior, remove her from the situation again.

Time Outs
When a child seems to be having difficulty calming down or regulating her feelings, brief " time outs" may be useful. However, it is easy for a child to feel emotionally abandoned if she is sent to a separate room by herself. A few minutes in a "time-out chair" or "quiet corner " in the same room as the parent, teacher or caregiver can be comforting. It allows children time to regain control without feeling unduly anxious or rejected.

Letting Off Steam
Children often seem to have boundless energy. You can help your children let off steam by providing time and space for large-motor activities such as running and jumping. A special time for noisy activities can also provide an excellent outlet for expressing aggression. Other ways to relieve tension and diffuse aggression include working with clay, hammering at a workbench, or engaging in other physically active play. Keep in mind that children are less likely to be aggressive when they are engaged in games or projects they enjoy. It is always helpful to keep the day as interesting as possible by providing a variety of experiences and activities for your children.

Recognizing Your Flashpoints
It is particularly important for adults to recognize and deal with their own anger in difficult moments with young children. It is not necessary to pretend to be okay when you're really angry. Talk about your feelings with children as you feel your anger mounting. If you feel that you might be too angry to make a good decision, wait for a few minutes and think it over before you respond. If another parent or caring adult is present, you might want to ask him or her to step in for a time so you can take a break.


Find more tips on dealing with challenging behavior in children.

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The Whole Child     ABCs of Child Development     For Parents     For Early Care Providers