Are You Expecting Too Much From Your Toddler?

A national survey shows most parents believe their toddlers have the capacity for more control of their emotions than is developmentally possible at their age.
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Sometimes when my 3-year-old melts down, and just. Won't. Stop. Crying. And screaming, and making a spectacle, and rolling around on the floor, and repeating the same thing over, and over, and over again, like, "I want more chocolate!!!!"... I look at her (with exasperation) and think, "Why can't you just get it together?"

Later, after the crisis moment passes, and her head stops spinning around like she's in an exorcist movie, and I've jumped through hoops to appease her (she got the chocolate after time-out failed), I'll remind myself, "She's only 3." And it turns out I'm not alone in expecting too much from my little one.

Early childhood resource group ZERO TO THREE recently conducted a national Parent Survey, Tuning In, and found most parents overestimate young kids' ability for self-control, something they call the "expectation gap."

Matthew Melmed, executive director of ZERO TO THREE, elaborates on the implications of the survey's findings, saying, "Having realistic expectations for a child's ability is critical for supporting healthy development and minimizing stress for both parents and that child." He added in the press release, "For example, if a parent thinks a child is capable of greater self-control than he actually is, it can lead to frustration for the parent and possibly more punitive – rather than supportive – responses."

Um, guilty.

Other results of the survey show:

• 56 percent of parents believe kids have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3.

• 36 percent believe that kids under age 2 have this kind of self-control.

• 43 percent of parents think kids are able to share and take turns with other kids before age 2.

• 24 percent of parents believe kids have the ability to control their emotions, like resisting tantrums when they're frustrated, at 1 year or younger.

• 42 percent believe kids have this ability by 2 years.

Here's the truth:

• Self control actually develops between 3½ and 4 years, and takes even more years to be used consistently.

• Sharing skills develop between 3 to 4 years.

• Emotional control also won't develop until between 3½ and 4 years.

In light of the survey, Melmed offers this advice to parents: "The early years are about teaching, not punishing. When parents have realistic expectations about their child's capabilities, they can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways."

But the survey also found many parents struggle with having enough patience when their kiddos lose control, and may also fail to control their own emotions when faced with an unreasonable toddler.

Yup, been there. As I'm sure many other parents reading this have been, too. But don't worry; eventually our kids will develop self-control...until they are parents to their own toddlers!

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.

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