The goal of parenting is to prepare our children to be successful, independent, capable and moral adults. Part of the responsibility of parenting is teaching our children how to control their responses to the world they live in. Through discipline 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.
1. Begin early.
Self-control begins when children are infants, when parents empathetically respond to their child when he is tired, hungry, cold, needing connection or has soiled his diaper. When an infant’s needs are met, he begins to learn basic trust. A child must be able trust his environment and in others, because it is the foundation for self-control.
Parents teach their 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 them. I used to rub all of my kids’ backs when they fussed before drifting off in their cribs, assuring them I was close and responsive. They calmed and quickly fell into a deep slumber.
2. Model what you want to see.
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. Take a look at yourself first when you witness your child behaving in a way you do not approve of. If you are not practicing self-control, how can you ask your child to?
3. Use the ‘K.I.S.S.’ method.
“Keep It Short and Simple.” For example, with a 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 repeating the warning.
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 knowing the rules, routines and what behavior is expected in numerous situations.
4. Use do-overs and generous praise.
Parents can go over instructions (do-overs) to reinforce the behavior they wish to see. Do-overs provide children with opportunities to practice the behavior over, often in a fun way. They 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. If he has trouble, model it for him.
Praise him for doing it the way you asked him to. “I like how you spoke to me. Well done!” Praise him 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 – as well as self-esteem.
5. Foster awareness and problem solving.
Discuss the reasons 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. A teen now, she oversees this herself with great success.
With the help of your child, come up one or two go-to ideas that work for him (and you) when he loses control. For my son, we long ago discovered two options that work well with him. He voluntarily 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 of words. The child that reemerges is my sweet, thoughtful loving boy.
6. Focus on the positive.
Positive reinforcement begets positive behavior. Bring up the positive whenever possible, like, “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 noticed for the good behavior they have.
7. 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, working in tandem to get things done to allow for more “together” time, and I’ll acknowledge this to my child: “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 and his strengths and interests. Your child’s self-control will eventually improve if you are consistent with discipline, expectations and verbal praise.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2016.