How to Teach Your Child Self-Control - Baby Chick

How to Teach Your Child Self-Control

ParentingUpdated February 16, 2021

by Quinn Kelly

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist


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Self-control is an essential tool for success in life. Yet, it can be a very unnatural skill to possess for a child. Some kids naturally seem to get it. Others seem to struggle with keeping not just their hands and feet to themselves but any other part of their body that might be near someone. Most children show signs of self-control between the ages of 3 to 7. But every child matures at different rates. It’s important to practice and train children in ways to build self-control. And here are some simple tips to begin this process.

Teaching Your Child Self-Control

Define self-control to your child.

If you want to see self-control in your home, you must first make sure your child understands what self-control is. We can’t expect a child to show self-control when we haven’t taught them about it in a way that makes sense to them. For most kids, a workable definition of self-control is the ability to control your feelings, words, bodies, and actions toward others in a respectful way. But each part of that needs to be broken down a little more to make sense to then.

To help this make more sense, you can say things like this and then give examples:

  • Self-control of your feelings means not shouting when you are angry but choosing to talk in a calm voice.
  • Self-control of your words means not saying things that are disrespectful even if you are frustrated.
  • Self-control of your body means keeping your hands and feet to yourself while standing next to others.
  • Self-control of your actions means not doing anything that could hurt or bother someone that is near you.

Let your child practice how to show self-control.

Once you have defined what self-control looks like, let them act out scenarios where you know your child struggles. If they tend to get in trouble for kicking under the table, then sit at a table with your child and practice sitting with their legs on the ground.

Give your child strategies when they are struggling with self-control.

If a child struggles with self-control, give them strategies to show it. For example, if your child wants to kick others under the table, have them practice stomping their feet in place instead of kicking. Or, if your child typically screams when they don’t get their way, teach them to count from 1 to 10 to calm themselves down. As children increase their coping strategies, they will have more success.

Give your child self-control mantras to use in different scenarios.

Shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are great for giving kids mantras to repeat for different scenarios. They are often musical in nature and have a rhyme to them. For example, if they struggle with emotional regulation, a great mantra from Daniel is: “When you feel so mad and that you want to roar, take a big breath and count to four.” But you can also make your own up that applies to your children. If they struggle with feeling left out, you can teach them a phrase, “If I feel left out, I don’t have to pout. My friend and I can play another day.”

Play games that involve self-control with your child.

Many games teach children the discipline of delayed gratification and waiting. Simple games like Simon Says, freeze tag, or Red Light/Green Light are all childhood games that help children learn to control their bodies and listen. They have to pay attention to the adult’s words to win. And while they are fun to the child, they also help the child learn important skills.

Recognize and applaud your child when they exhibit self-control.

One of my favorite ways to help children learn self-control is to applaud a child and notice when they do a great job showing self-control. The more you notice their good behavior, the more naturally motivated they are to continue. As parents, we often give feedback when our children do not do what we desire instead of when they are.

For instance, you have been working to help your child tell you when they are tired instead of whine. Your child vocalizes to you that they are ready for bed. Be sure to affirm them for their ability to control their emotions. For example, “I want to let you know how proud I am that you noticed you were tired and asked to go to bed instead of starting to whine and get upset about other things. You are paying attention to what you need. That takes self-control to ask for bed. I am so proud of you.” The more they notice they are capable, the more they feel empowered to continue striving for self-control.

Alert your child at times when they have a chance to practice self-control.

There are times when a child can respond differently to a situation when a parent reminds them that it is a good opportunity to express self-control. For example, if you see a child walking into a trigger situation, you can proactively say, “I know that sometimes when we go to your cousin’s house, you don’t like to wait to go outside. But we have to follow their rules and go outside when the dog comes inside. So this is a great time to practice self-control. And I know you can do it.”

You can also have a code phrase you use like “Orange Monkey.” When you say this phrase, it is their cue to show self-control without everyone else around knowing what you are talking about. A codeword’s power is that it can make the child feel empowered that you are saying something just to them.

All in all, self-control is a growing process. It’s sometimes even hard for adults! So we must remember that while teaching our children. Because little by little, they grow and learn. It just takes time. 


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