Self-control is an essential tool for success in life. It’s the ability to override your impulses and automatic reactions and resist immediate temptations to meet some future goal.1 Self-control is associated with higher life outcomes, such as physical and mental well-being, academic achievement, and financial security or success.1
While self-control is essential, it can be a very unnatural skill for a child. Some kids innately seem to get it, while others may struggle. You might see a child challenged to keep their hands and feet to themselves and any other body part that might be near someone. Or, they may have difficulty waiting for or delaying gratification. Most children show signs of self-control between the ages of 3 and 7.1,2 Although every child matures at different rates, there are many strategies and ways to support our children in building self-control.
How To Teach Your Child Self-Control
Here are some simple tips to begin the process of teaching your child self-control:
Define Self-Control to Your Child
If you want to see self-control in your home, you must first teach your child what self-control is. We can’t expect kids 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 respectfully control your feelings, words, body, and actions toward others. But you can elaborate on each part of that to help it make sense to them. You can say things like:
- “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 disrespectful things 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 near you.”
Validate and Normalize How Tough It Is
It’s essential that while we define or share our thoughts on self-control with our kids, we also couple it with empathy. It’s hard for children to show self-control, so make sure they know it’s normal and ok if they find it challenging. You can tell them, “I know, it’s so hard to wait, right?” or “I can see you tried really hard, but sitting still can be tricky when you just want to get up and play.” Make sure to reward their efforts and praise them as they progress. Otherwise, they might become disheartened or have lower self-esteem if they struggle to have self-control or follow your rules, requests, and directions.
Let Them Practice Showing Self-Control
Once you have defined self-control, you can allow your child to act out scenarios where you know they struggle. For instance, if your child tends to get in trouble for kicking under the table, you could sit at a table with them and have them practice sitting with their legs on the ground.
Offer Strategies for When They Are Struggling
If your 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 one to 10 to calm themselves down. As children increase their coping strategies, they will likely have more success.
Provide Self-Control Mantras for Different Scenarios
Mantras are often musical and have a rhyme to them. Shows like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” give kids mantras to repeat for different scenarios. For example, if your child struggles 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.” You can also make up mantras that apply to your children. For instance, if they struggle with feeling left out, you might teach them a phrase like, “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
Many games can teach children the discipline of delayed gratification and waiting. Simple childhood games like Simon Says, freeze tag, and Red Light, Green Light can help children learn how to control their bodies and listen, as they must pay attention to the adult’s words to win. These games are fun and can help the child learn important skills.3
Applaud Them 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 appreciate their good behavior, the more motivated they are to continue.4 As parents, we often give feedback when our children don’t do what we desire instead of when they are doing what we want.
For instance, let’s say you have been working to help your child verbally tell you when they are tired instead of whining. Your child vocalizes to you that they are ready for bed. Be sure to affirm them for their ability to control their emotions. You might say, “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 Them When They Can Practice Self-Control
Sometimes, a child may respond differently to a situation if a parent reminds them that it’s an excellent opportunity to express self-control. For example, if you see a child walking into a trigger situation, you can proactively say, “I know sometimes when we go to your cousin’s house, you don’t like to wait to go outside. But we must follow their rules and only go outside when the dog comes inside. 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, such as “Orange Monkey.” When you say this phrase, it’s their cue to show self-control without everyone else knowing what you are talking about. A codeword can make your 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! We must remember that while teaching our children. Because little by little, they grow and learn. It just takes time.