Self-control is one of the most important skills that parents can teach their kids because these skills are needed for success later in life. It refers to having power or control over one’s own actions. By learning self-control, children can make appropriate decisions and respond to stressful situations in ways that can yield positive outcomes.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, it is important to select age-appropriate goals for children who are learning self-control. Try simple goals. For preschool children, appropriate goals might include not interrupting or not fighting with siblings. For early elementary school children, appropriate goals might include complying with bedtime rules or showing anger appropriately (instead of hitting or screaming). Some general strategies that often help children learn appropriate self-control skills include:
Take a break: Encourage children to “take a break” or a “time out” from a situation where they are feeling angry or upset.
Talk about it: When a challenging situation arises, talk to your child about what a “good choice” would look like in that particular situation vs. a “bad choice.” For example, if your child is upset about wanting dessert before dinner, a “good choice” would be to eat dinner and wait patiently for dessert. A “bad choice” would be to have a temper tantrum, which would result in no dessert at all.
Use appropriate rewards: Children need consistent, positive feedback to learn appropriate behavior. Praise and attention are highly rewarding for young children, as is special time with a parent. Be sure your child knows what behavior is desired, and reward him when he displays that behavior.
Teach self-regulation: Parents can help teach even young children the skills that foster self-control, using exercises such as those that follow. These exercises include dealing with “wanting something I can’t have,” understanding feelings, and controlling anger. Start by roleplaying these exercises with your child and then start applying them to actual situations:
When a child wants something he cannot have
1. SAY, “I would like to have ________ but I can’t right now.”
2. THINK about your choices:
• Ask again later.
• Find something else to do.
• Ask to borrow it (if feasible).
• Ask to share it.
• Ask to do chores to earn money to buy one.
• Wait your turn.
3. ACT out your best choice.
Dealing with anger
1. RECOGNIZE you are feeling angry (face is red, hands are clenched, possibly beginning to cry).
2. COUNT to 10.
3. THINK about your choices:
• Walk away for now.
• Relax and take some deep breaths.
• Tell the person in nice words using an inside/calm voice why you are angry.
4. ACT out your best choice.
It is very important to model self-control. Evaluate your own behavior as a parent and teach your child the appropriate way to deal with difficulties in life. If you have concerns about your child’s ability to exercise self-control, it may be necessary to seek professional help as the earlier your child learns the appropriate behaviors, the most likely he is to have positive outcomes. As a parent, you are in charge of your child’s success in life!