Self-control is not discussed much when it comes to teaching children life skills but learning proper self-control allows children to grow up to be adults who know how to regulate themselves emotionally in a healthy way. When children don’t learn self-control, it can lead to problems in adulthood, such as risk-taking behaviours.
Children can be taught self-control in several ways, most of which focus on teaching emotional regulation and rewarding positive behavior that displays self-control. Children can also learn to improve their self-control through games that focus on self-control, attention, and memory skills.
Teaching self-control doesn’t just involve teaching a child tools for learning how to direct their behavior—it also involves giving them the tools to control their emotions. Keep reading to learn more about how to teach your child self-control.
Environmental Control Reinforces Self-Control
When it comes to teaching self-control to younger children, it’s important to remember that toddlers have a much more rudimentary sense of self-control than older children. Children don’t begin to develop a sense of self-control and what it means until they are around three and a half to four and a half years old. (Source: Zero to Three)
Because it’s hard for children younger than this age range to control their impulses and emotions, it’s much easier for everyone involved if parents make some efforts to reduce environmental stimuli, which can trigger lapses in self-control. This includes strategies such as the following (Source: Kid’s Health):
- Laying out options for clothing. Toddlers often want to make decisions for themselves and fight for their independence but may need help to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Giving toddlers two outfits to choose between, for example, can help you avoid tantrums over getting dressed. If the child is given some degree of control, this makes the action a positive one.
- Keeping candy and junk food out of the house. You won’t find yourself arguing over whether your child can have a piece of candy or not—and you won’t have to deal with the subsequent meltdown—if you don’t bring those kinds of things into the house. Leaving children with a healthy variety of snacks instead can keep them from making poor choices when they aren’t old enough to have the self-control to think through their choices yet.
- Limiting screen time. As people of all ages have shown, without self-control, hours can be lost in front of a television or smart device such as an iPad. Screen time is fine, but limits should be put into place and consistently reinforced to teach children to limit their time spent watching a screen during the day.
- Knowing your child’s triggers. As you spend more time around your toddler, you will quickly learn what scenarios can cause your child to lose self-control. Some children may be prone to throwing tantrums when they’re tired or overstimulated; others might have a meltdown if they feel they have been unjustly corrected over something. Knowing triggers can help you avoid them.
Until toddlers get old enough to have a conversation about good choices and practicing self-control, keeping temptations out of sight and out of mind can help you avoid a lot of unnecessary breakdowns in self-control.
Reward and Praise Examples of Self-Control
Once children are old enough to practice self-control and you can discuss it with them, it’s time to start rewarding and praising self-control. Children will often surprise you with their generosity or insight into what’s best for them (for example, children who put themselves to bed when they’re tired). Whenever this kind of behavior crops up, it should be heavily praised and rewarded when possible.
By rewarding and praising actions that display self-control, you are not only encouraging your children to repeat these actions in the future; you’re also teaching them to consider their actions ahead of time in terms of short-term versus long-term rewards. Here are some actions that a child might display that would serve as an example of self-control:
- Voluntarily sharing a toy
- Accepting a punishment without a fuss
- Going to bed without being told twice
- Performing tasks such as brushing their teeth or making their bed without being asked
By consistently rewarding and praising examples of self-control, parents can establish an environment where self-control is a value. (Source: Ministry of Education Guyana) It can help to teach a child discipline and temperance as they grow older and enter adolescence.
It is important that physical rewards are not always used to reward self-control; otherwise, this teaches the child that they will always receive something for doing what they should already be doing, to begin with. Instead, alternate between offering praise and small rewards so that self-control becomes a reward in and of itself.
Encourage Games That Practice Self-Control
A fun way to encourage self-control in younger children is to teach children games that help them practice self-control. Here are a few examples of games that can help children learn to control themselves (Source: Your Therapy Source):
- Simon Says: Simon Says is a classic children’s game where one child (or adult) orders a group of children to perform simple commands, such as stand on one foot or rub their stomach. The caveat is that children must listen for the person in charge (Simon) to say the phrase “Simon Says” as part of their command. If they move without hearing the correct command, they’re out of the game.
- Red Light Green Light: Red Light Green Light is another fun children’s game where the person who is it alternates between saying “red light” and “green light.” The object of the game is to touch the person who is it without being called out. Players are disqualified for moving if the person who is it says, “red light,” and can only move after being told “green light.”
- Jenga: Jenga is a game of balance and patience and teaches children to carefully move wooden blocks out of the towering stack without knocking it over. Jenga is a good game for teaching both emotional regulation and physical self-control. It can teach children how to move carefully and be aware of their effect on objects in their environment.
These games and games like them can teach children self-control without them even realizing that they’re learning anything!
Make Sure That Children Get Easy Transitions to Reinforce Self-Control
One way to get better at teaching children self-control is to be aware of what periods during the day children are most likely to lose their self-control. Here are a few reasons that children lose self-control or the ability to regulate emotionally:
- Hunger (either in the morning before breakfast or in the afternoon before lunch or supper)
- The transition from sleeping to getting ready for school
- Exposure to overwhelming sensory stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells
- Exhaustion from a long day, a strenuous social activity, or activities on vacation
- Separation from an object that is known for triggering strong emotions, such as a comfort object
Sometimes it is the suddenness of having to transition from one activity to another that sets a child off, and sometimes it is physical discomfort such as hunger or thirst. Remember that children may not even realize that they’re hungry until they’re so irritable they’re having a tantrum over nothing. Reinforcing self-control in small children is a lot easier when you’re aware of what things may set them off.
Here are a few other ways you can make transitions easier on children and help reinforce their self-control (Source: The Chaos and the Clutter):
- Use large visual schedules such as calendars and to-do lists. It is easier for children to accept the transition into a new activity when given a visual cue that helps them remember that the new activity will be coming up. Keeping children on a steady routine also helps reinforce their sense of security and makes them less likely to act out during transitions.
- Leave plenty of time for transitioning. That means not waiting until the last minute to herd kids into the car for school or packing activities so close together that you can barely catch a breath from one to the next. This can cause children to become stressed and agitated. Streamline your routine by doing things like laying out clothes the night before so that transition periods like mornings before school are less chaotic. To teach self-control, you need to practice it, too.
Transitions can be one of the most trying times when breaking down a child’s self-control, so making these periods easier on children is a good way to prevent them from being exposed to triggers that strain their self-control when it isn’t fully developed yet.
Motivate Children to Develop Self-Control
When teaching children self-control, it’s important to keep the experience as motivating and positive as you can. Criticising children when they do the wrong thing doesn’t help children to control themselves, and it can cause even more emotional dysregulation that leads to worse self-control issues in adolescence and adulthood.
Instead, parents should focus on ways to motivate children to develop self-control. Here are a few techniques you can try (Source: Very Well Parents):
- Turn routines into positive habits. The reason that routines, consistency, and structure are always encouraged in parenting classes is that these are the building blocks of positive habits. Children taught from an early age to make their bed will often carry the habit forward with them for the rest of their life. Likewise, children that are taught water is a drink for meals, and Coca-Cola is only a treat may have more success regulating their diets as adults.
- Make sure children understand the reason behind the rules. Nothing is more infuriating to a child than “because I said so” (or an adult, for that matter). And the reason is clear—it’s a condescending answer. Instead, take the time to gently explain the reasons behind the rules you set in the house. This can make them make much more sense to your child.
- Take baby steps when teaching self-control. It’s a good idea to get children into a consistent morning routine, but there’s no need to be a tyrant about it. Instead of getting your child to perform their routine perfectly without being reminded, focus on making sure they do one thing consistently each day, such as brushing their teeth. As they master that task, you can slowly build on the habit until a full routine is established.
A little patience goes a long way in keeping children motivated to practice self-control. Remember not to tackle too much at once, and don’t be too hard on kids if they have an occasional lapse in judgment or self-control. Keep in mind that they’re still actively learning the skill and should be expected to drop the ball every once in a while.
Work with Children on Attention and Memory to Improve Self-Control
Self-control, attention, and mental flexibility are all interrelated aspects of executive function. When children are young, their skills in executive function are still developing. The good news is that by developing focus and memory skills, you also reinforce the same parts of the brain that regulate self-control.
Here are ways to improve a child’s ability to pay attention (Source: Edutopia):
- Make sure that any lessons are broken up into small, easily digestible chunks. The younger the child, the shorter the lesson should be.
- Ensure any activity that takes a high degree of focus is balanced out with frequent breaks for physical activity. When children appear to grow wriggly and lose focus, it’s usually a good sign you need to take five and regroup.
- Make sure visual distractions are reduced to a minimum. This can include sensory distractions, such as music or ambient noises.
A child’s memory can be improved through deduction games and flashcards. Many games depend on a child’s memory, such as I-Spy or clapping games.
Once children are a little older, another activity that can greatly increase their ability to self-regulate their emotions, focus, and mental clarity is mindfulness meditation. While you might think of meditation as an adult activity, meditation can provide positive mental and emotional health benefits for all ages.
Meditation can be done in short intervals to keep kids from becoming bored. Teaching children to slow down and pay attention to their breath can help them learn self-control and emotional regulation. It can also make them less anxious and calmer in general. Children may also benefit from yoga, which incorporates stretching and engaging exercise with meditation.
Teach Children to Plan for Self-Control
Teaching self-control with younger children often means planning out the child’s itinerary and teaching them how to follow it. But with older children, it’s important to teach them to plan, for a few reasons:
- Teaching a child to plan teaches foresight. Using foresight prevents a person from giving into short-term impulses that sabotage long-term goals. It also teaches children proactive problem solving by teaching them to identify things they’ll have to act on in the future.
- Teaching a child to plan helps reinforce a daily routine. Following a daily routine helps reinforce self-control and disciplined behavior. It also gives children a much-needed sense of security. In a chaotic world, it’s always nice to know what the rules are.
- Teaching a child to plan gives them useful life skills for the future. People who are planners tend to be more successful than aimless people, so encouraging your child to plan early on can help them approach obstacles in life more effectively.
- Teaching a child to plan teaches them to strategise, translating to more effective work in reading, math, writing, and even science. In essence, planning is a slowed-down version of problem-solving and is a good way to train the brain to tackle obstacles positively.
Children can be taught to plan in similar ways to adults. A daily planner is one way for children to start thinking ahead to their responsibilities for the following day. For example, children who understand that they have to get up early for an activity may be more likely to go to bed without a fuss if they already have the activity planned.
As with adults, planning activities are best done in the evening when the child is relaxed and other chores have already been completed. A daily review of the planner is a good activity for after dinner or right before bed. You can also set aside time with a child once or twice a week to discuss larger activity goals or get a sense of how they are doing with their schedule.
This might seem pretty regimented for a child, but you’d be surprised how much enjoyment and security children can get from knowing ahead of time what will happen next. This is very good for their sense of self-control and discipline, too. Goal setting has been shown by psychologists to be a major factor in developing self-control. (Source: Psychology Today)
The Key to Self-Control in Children is Emotional Regulation
One of the biggest issues in developing self-control in children is that their self-control is intricately linked to their emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the child’s ability to both identify and positively process their emotions. Here are signs in children that their emotional regulation is still developing:
- Tantrums: Tantrums (when a child is overwhelmed by negative emotions and begins crying inconsolably or screaming in anger) is when a child’s emotions completely take over their sense of rational thought. Most childhood tantrums pass in a matter of minutes, but tantrums lack emotional regulation.
- Crying for no reason: Children are prone to burst into tears for little or no reason. This is usually the result of them being unable to articulate their emotions on a particular subject. While frequent crying for no reason is a sign of concern, an occasional irrational bout of tears is normal for both children and adults.
- No filter: Many young children may not have a good filter between their brain and their mouth, and this can lead to their emotions driving them to say inappropriate things (such as saying they don’t like a gift and pouting over it rather than simply thanking the gift-giver and accepting it). Children must be taught to regulate their own emotions. They should also be taught to consider others’ emotions and put themselves in another person’s place and feelings.
- Physical violence: Hitting other children, biting, or throwing things may seem like extreme actions in a child, but they’re pretty commonplace in certain age groups (especially toddlers) because these children haven’t developed the emotional regulation yet to handle their negative emotions in less impulsive ways. For example, a child who has developed proper emotional regulation will tell an adult about a conflict rather than strike another child.
While the above issues might seem stressful and may make some parents worry about their child’s emotional development, there is no reason to be fearful. For many children, these bouts of intense emotion are just a part of calibrating their emotional regulation. They will taper off as the children grow older and gain more self-control just through their neurological development.
To help them along, here are a few ways that adults can reinforce children in their development of emotional control (Source: Parent with Confidence):
- Act as a good role model for emotional regulation. If your child grows up seeing you fly off the handle with road rage in the car or talk down to cashiers left and right at the store, they will not learn to develop limits (or tact) in negative emotional expression. In other words, if you want to teach your children not to have tantrums, you’re going to have to work on your own.
- Help children become aware of their triggers, stress, and emotions. It can be more difficult for some children than others to identify what emotion they’re feeling at any given time. Teaching children to slow down and pay attention to their emotions can help prevent them from becoming overwhelmed, reducing impulsive behavior that lacks self-control.
- Teach children to put themselves in time out. If a child is in an emotionally triggering situation, a time out can be a good idea not as a punishment but as a way for the child to gain some distance from the situation that is bothering them. Teaching children to walk away from conflict and collect themselves is a useful tool that can follow them into adulthood.
- Teach children that occasionally becoming emotionally overwhelmed is normal. Rather than shaming children for tantrums or harshly punishing them, talk to children when they’ve calmed down, explore the reasons behind their tantrums, explain why tantrums happen and how a child can help to calm themselves when they feel their emotions welling up and overwhelming their common sense.
- Teach children about emotional regulation. There are plenty of great kid-friendly videos and resources available that help explain to children what emotional regulation is and how to practice self-control with their urges and emotions in a fun way. Here is a list of resources you can use, including worksheets and videos.
- Figure out ways for children to cope with becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Some children may do best if allowed to brood alone after becoming upset, while others prefer to throw themselves into a new activity to “shift gears” in their brains. Drinking a glass of water can also help act as a trigger to emotionally deescalate.
- Encourage children to journal their feelings, especially when upset. Encouraging children in the activity of journaling can help train them on how to identify their own emotions. In the process of discovering why they’re upset, many children (and adults) can emotionally wind down and gain detachment from the upsetting situation.
- Be patient as children learn self-control and emotional regulation. It’s easy to expect too much out of children when they’re emotionally overwhelmed, especially if they have a tantrum in public. But understanding that children have limited control over emotional surges on a neurological level can help parents be more empathetic in coping with tantrums.
Teaching children to think ahead helps reduce impulsivity in children, which can reinforce a sense of self-control and composure. Reinforcing this kind of calm behavior early on in childhood development can lead to a much happier and steadfast adult in the future.
Self-Control Is an Important Trait for Children to Learn
Teaching self-control to children makes them easier to handle and more pleasant to be around. It is also a crucial part of their formative development. Successfully teaching children self-control and emotional regulation in childhood can lead to much higher emotional security and mental fortitude in the child when they transition into adolescence and adulthood.
By teaching foresight, emotional regulation, and positive self-control coping mechanisms to your child when they’re young, you can help them resist temptations such as risky or other impulsive behavior when they’re older. This could save them from making a reactive decision that could damage their reputation or even risk their lives.