Teaching Children Self-Control

Many developmental psychologists view self-control as an outcome of good parenting practices. Research has found that parents who model self-control and who refrain from harsh punishment or extreme laxness have children with better self-control. However, some research suggests that the ability to exhibit self-control can be an aspect of a person's basic wiring or temperament. Environmental factors, such as parenting, can make the problem better or worse but are not the total explanation for the difficulties with self-control.

Self-control refers to the ability to inhibit a physical response as well as the ability to manage an emotional reaction. Infants have very limited abilities to stop themselves from reacting; toddlers can be observed making attempts to hold back tears, for example, but are not very successful. If you watch preschoolers cope with a tempting situation (such as cookies left out on a plate) you will notice that sometimes their little hands go out to grab a cookie but then they quickly pull them back with remarkable self-control. By the time children are five or six years old, we tend to expect them to be able to exhibit enough self-control to sit through story time in kindergarten, for example, or to refrain from hitting another child just because that child stepped on their art work. Are these reasonable expectations? For the majority of children, the answer is "yes" but there is a significant group of children whose difficulties with self-control will be life-long. Some of these children will be diagnosed with ADHD; others will be considered 'normal but challenging'. Regardless, parents or teachers can help the children in many ways. Here are some suggestions:

1. Limit children's exposure to models of out-of-control behavior, whether that is parental screaming and hitting, viewing older siblings fight, television programs in which the heroes are aggressive and impulsive, and classrooms with many children with behavior disorders. Acting-out behavior can be catching!

2. Model self-talk to children. Adults can talk out loud about waiting or about the virtues of patience, while in lineups, or when doing difficult tasks:

"I guess I have to wait a while for my turn. The store is busy today. Why don't I balance my checkbook while I am waiting?"

"Mm. It looks as if that driver is going to take the parking space I wanted. How rude. Oh well, no sense getting angry when I can look for a space further up."

3. Limit the opportunities for falling apart behavior by taking a strong, preventative approach that includes adequate sleep, good nutrition, avoidance of overstimulation and/or highly boring situations, and provision of tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult.

The Easily Overstimulated Child: Don't overload this child with parties, outings, treats, and visitors to the home. While some children have a high tolerance for lots of activity, others don't. Make sure your child understands that "it is okay to be different".

The Easily Bored Child: Bring along a favorite game or toy, chat with the child, pair with a pal, and avoid situations with long periods of waiting or requirements to sit still. If your child has to sit still all day in school, don't expect the same after school.

4. Reward children for patience and self-control by noticing it and praising it. Do not accidentally reinforce impulsivity and aggressive behavior by paying attention to it.

Journal of Developmental Psychology

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