Teaching Your Children Self-Control

tired momYou come home at the end of the day. Maybe you’ve picked up one child from daycare and another from a playdate. Your tired, you don’t have anything prepared for dinner, and you long for some space.

And your kids go at it. Even if its loud fun screaming, it’s draining. But if it’s fighting or demanding, you just don’t have any dealing power. You end up shouting for them to be quiet, to just get along and stop bothering you. Of course you know that won’t work. They will come at you harder. But you can’t even think straight. You need quiet and time.

You know that, but your kids don’t. This is why parenting is the hardest job on the planet. You must continually twist your perspective to understand what your kids understand. Not many parents do that. You tell them what to do—or else….

The expectations on your kids, the messages they hear is they should know better, they should be more considerate of your needs, they listen and do what you say.

What you are unintentionally expecting is for your kids to have self-control, delayed gratification, patience, and consideration for others. You see how well-behaved your friends’ kids are, you know what was expected of you at their age, and you expect the same.

Children are not born with self-control. Self-discipline, delayed gratification, consideration, even sharing, is a learned ability and develops with the maturing process that is different for each child. You can influence the process but not put it in gear. 

Problems arise when you expect from your kids what they are not yet cognitively and emotionally capable of. And if they are punitively reprimanded for not doing as asked, you are passing on the emotional baggage you carry.

Impulsivity and aggressiveness have a great deal to do with who your child is—his innate temperament. So you might see a neighbor’s 6 year old behaving much more calmly and sensibly than your wild and crazy 8 year old whose voice is at a screaming pitch most of the time. Many children have a harder time with impulse control than others.

Self-control is the ability to control yourself emotionally. To think before you act and not allow your emotions get the better of you. Can you (and what age are you?) do that all the time? 

The prefrontal cortex needs a good deal of development before thoughts can outperform emotions. A young child’s behavior is driven by her emotional state. tantrum

Webster’s definition of behavior is the aggregate response of internal stimuli and external stimuli, which means that her behavior results from an external happening meeting her internal emotions at any given time. Behavior is like steam escaping from a pot of boiling water. Instead of putting a lid on the pot (your reaction) to stop the boiling (emotional state), it’s more effective to turn down the heat. That means connecting with your child’s emotional state with understanding and not adding insult to injury by reacting to her behavior.

If parents try to teach self-control by giving rewards or consequences—external motivation—what they’re doing is increasing the intensity of the child’s internal emotions. Hence behavior gets worse. Internal motivation happens through emotional connection.

Using rewards and punishments undermines the development of self-control because you are the one doing the controlling. 

Of course limits and structure are important, not only for your children to know what is expected of them but also for you to maintain your needs and wants in balance with your child’s. Maintaining limits is not the same thing as controlling behavior with external coercive tactics.


Ways to allow the natural development of self-control*:

  • When children have tantrums and emotional meltdowns, allow them to experience the full range they need to get through them at their own pace.
  • Never tell a child: “Calm down.” “You’re too emotional.”  “Stop being so sensitive.” “Don’t get so upset.” Think how you would like to hear that.
  • Never try to reason with an upset child. Their thinking brain is de-activated. Wait until emotions are down.
  • As often as you can, stay with your child through the meltdown with a calm, witnessing presence. No words are necessary other than, “This is hard” or “I’m here when you’re ready.” When they’re done, offer with a hug, “Now look at that. You brought yourself right back. We’re here together and you’re fine.”
  • Notice that a child allowed to finish their full emotional range without controls returns to reason with a very clear state of mind. This is the time to talk about what happened if needed.
  • Problem-solve. Giving choices and saying, You want x and I want y. How can we make this work for both of us? gives kids agency instead of telling them what to do.
  • Teach multiple emotions. Ex. Instead of angry, try scary, jealous, misunderstood, alone, frustrated, enraged, afraid, worried.
  • Model owning your emotions without blaming them on another, getting through them, and problem solving on the other side. Let your children see that you feel all emotions too.
  • With older children, respect their silences, need for space after school. Watch, listen and learn. They will come around when they are ready and when given the chance to find their way.Mom and Teen

If you want your teens to have self-discipline and self-control, to make smart decisions, give them opportunities to control themselves when young. That means having tolerance for emotional outbursts and not taking responsibility for how they feel. It actually makes parenting much easier.

For a young child who wants what he wants when he wants it, being expected to stop wanting and do what someone else wants is tantamount to putting him in a cage. 

* many neuro-diverse children need more specific tools to help them control emotions.

Related Articles:

Control vs. Problem Solving and Balance

10 Ways to Get Respect from Your Child