Teaching Children Self-Control
Learning How to Yield
Part of the responsibility of parenting is teaching our children how to control their responses to the world they live in. Through discipline (“to teach”) children learn to master self-control, a vital life-skill for success.
Self-control is the ability to regulate emotions, desires, and the verbal, nonverbal, or physical expression of those desires, especially when challenged by other people and situations. Children will come to rely on self-control as they move through the stages of infancy and childhood into adolescence and adulthood, calling again and again on their ability to tolerate frustration and to manage themselves in a variety of situations.
Self-control begins when children are infants, when parents empathetically respond to their child when he is tired, hungry, cold, needing connection or have soiled their diapers. A child must trust in his others. Trust is the foundation for self-control.
Parents teach infants how to self-soothe, the first self-regulation (self-control) skill. Infants are able to self-soothe because they trust that their parents will care for and nurture them. I used to rub all of my kids’ backs when they fussed before drifting off in their cribs, letting them know I was close and responsive. They calmed and quickly fell into a deep slumber.
Model what you want to see in your child
Children learn emotional regulation through parental regulation. When modeling, parents should respond to others and in situations the way they wish their children to respond.
Model calm, even though you may feel otherwise. You are always the teacher. You are also the student, always. Take a look at yourself first when you witness your child behaving in a way of which you do not approve.
Keep it short and simple. For example with the younger child directions can be something like, “If you hit, you sit.” The parent follows through and when the child is ready, he can re-engage with others, with a reminder of “no hitting” as well as using his words.
Self-control generally improves as children develop and the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which regulates behavior, matures. Older children have had years of experience of knowing the rules, routines and what behavior is expected in numerous situations.
Use do-overs and generous praise
Parents can go over instructions to reinforce the behavior they wish to see. Do-overs teach, encourage and strengthen the self-control “muscle” in children. The best time to achieve a do-over is when the child and the parent are calm and the lack of control has recently occurred.
For example, “You sounded mean when you spoke to me. I understand you may be tired, but that is not the way we speak to each other. Try again, please.” And then have your child speak, until he has achieved the proper tone.
Praise him for doing it the way you asked him to and for controlling himself. Repetition and verbal praise, along with a hug and smile, reinforce the self-control you are trying to instill in your child.
Help your child notice his lack of control and work on problem solving
Discuss the reason(s) why your child becomes out of control. Does he have a specific “flashpoint” or trigger? Is he tired? Hungry? Overtaxed with too many tasks or commitments? My daughter is triggered by hunger. She becomes snarky and then downright mean and combative as her blood sugar drops; in her case we make sure she eats small portions of protein throughout the day.
With the help of your child come up with one or two go-to ideas that work for him when he loses control. For my son, we long ago discovered two options that work well with him. He either goes to his room to cool off until he feels in control or he takes a long shower to “wash away the emotional dirt.” His choice. The child that re-emerges is my sweet, thoughtful loving boy.
Focus on the positive
Positive reinforcement begets more positive behavior. Bring up the positive whenever possible, “You are so thoughtful and kind. You helped your sister feel better when you sat with her and read to her.” Kids love to be stroked and be noticed for the good behavior they have.
Reward kids for self-control
The most sought-after reward with my kids is one-on-one time with their dad or me. We try to be efficient, pulling together to get things done to allow for more “together” time, “I was able to complete my errand quickly because you were so patient; now I have more time to spend with you. What would you like to do?”
No child is perfect or comes with instructions. Focus on the love you have for your child, your relationship with him, and his strengths and interests. Your child’s self-control will eventually improve if you are consistent with discipline, expectations and verbal praise.
Judy M. Miller is a freelance writer living in the Midwest with her husband and four children. She is a parent educator and the author of “What To Expect From Your Adopted Tween” and “Writing to Heal Adoption Grief: Making Connections & Moving Forward.”