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Help Teach Kids to Think Before They Act

These 7 little phrases will do the trick

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Try using these gentle words to help your youngster learn self-control skills.
Teaching Self Control

Learning self-control isn’t easy. The brain needs to be ready—and it takes years of growing and developing for the frontal lobes to even begin to help kids stop impulsive behaviors and emotional overreactions. Until that happens, little ones need help learning and practicing self-control. Use these handy phrases to stop the acting out.

7 Phrases That Encourage Self-Regulation

1. “Let’s step back.”

Knowing how to calm yourself when emotions are about to take over is an important first step toward maintaining self-control. Next time your child starts to bug out because a pal is way too interested in her favorite toy, let her know it’s OK to step back and breathe—at least until she’s calmer. Assure her this isn’t a punishment, like a time-out, but a moment to take charge of her fright-or-flight response and reduce the chance of tears.

2. “Let’s make a plan.”

Anticipate situations that are tough for your child, and then show him how to defuse them. You can say, for example, “If there are some special toys you would rather not share when Jake comes over, we can put them away now.” Or, if you know a trip to the grocery store can provoke a meltdown, talk your child through it beforehand. Together decide what would make the trip easier. Maybe he would like his own cart to push. Or maybe the two of you can pack a healthy snack that he can nibble on in the store.

3. “Let’s take a walkor do a few jumps on the trampolineor have a three-minute dance party.”

If you see your child becoming frustrated while waiting in line, for example, get physical! Physical activity helps little ones regulate their emotions, and provides a welcome distraction from whatever temptation or conflict is troubling them.

4. “Let’s think about this.”

Help your child identify her feelings with statements such as, “It seems as though you are feeling angry because Courtney wants to go first all the time.” It may be obvious to you, but your child is still learning what feelings are and how to process them. Naming them is the first step toward managing them.

5. “Let’s review the rules.”

Simple statements such as “We take turns” or “Walking feet inside the store” are easiest for children to understand and follow. Don’t be afraid to repeat rules regularly. Kids appreciate knowing what is expected of them. When they practice following household, playground, or classroom rules, they are learning how to control their behavior in a particular situation or environment.

6. “Let’s play a game.”

Activities that involve stopping and starting help kids practice self-control. Think “Red Light, Green Light,” “Simon Says,” or a simple round of freeze dance (that one gets bonus points for lots of physical activity). Pretend play may help kids build self-control too. It is all about role-playing. When one child says, “I’m the mommy and you’re the daddy, so you have to take this baby for a walk,” an out-of-control response that involves tossing a baby doll aside and shrieking, “No, daddies never take walks!” is not a great idea. A child’s playmates will quickly set him straight or refuse to play any longer if he breaks character too often.

7. “I’m proud of you.”

When your child demonstrates self-control, such as willingly sharing a toy or cheerfully complying with a request instead of giving in to an emotional reaction, notice it and comment on it. Your praise and attention are powerful.