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Smiling girl learning self-control

How to Teach Your Children Self-Control

it's an important quality

There are certain traits that we all want our kids to develop. We want our kids to be confident, empathetic, gracious, honest—everything that will ultimately make them a well-rounded member of society. Another trait that is just as important for kids to learn—that most parents would prefer their kids learn a tad earlier than some of those aforementioned—is self-control.

Let’s be honest. How many times have you been in a store with your kiddo and she has the sudden urge to touch everything? Or when your son eats absolutely every cookie when you tell him he can have only two? Yes, self-control and children don’t tend to go hand-in-hand. So how do you help them develop this trait?

We talked to Dean Beckloff, Ph.D., of Beckloff Pediatric Behavioral Center, about how parents can encourage this quality.

Kids are kids, so when is self-control something parents should work on? Like you said, kids are kids [so they] need to have freedom to explore, create, be a kid and have emotions. However, the growth towards emotional and behavioral control is “built in” so to speak.

How do you mean? On a neurological level, brain growth is happening with that growth moving towards what is called the upper brain. Amazingly, that growth will continue till around the age of 25 years old. That upper brain is where kids grow into self-control. So should parents be helping their child to grow in self-control? Always and yes, since on a physiological basis, that’s happening anyway. And we can assist that journey towards self-control by all sorts of ways, from helping our kids learn “rules” for daily functioning, to reading to them, to everything we do with our kids.

Is there such a thing as too young to work on self-control? Absolutely not. We start truly when they’re infants. If they are out of sorts and crying and fussy, we pick them up, soothe them, lightly bounce them, etc. This is the beginning of learning to regulate on the inside. As [mentioned above], the brain is on that journey to moving from the reactive lower brain, to the regulated upper brain. So we are constantly working to help them to regulate.

Are there any similar or complementing character traits that aid in learning self-control? Nearly everything lends itself to helping the growing child to grow towards self-control. Regulating is such an important part of neurological growth. So whatever we do can lend itself towards learning to regulate behavior and emotions—from learning to cross the street safely to reading a book to your young child; all of this is helping the child to learn to regulate themselves.

Are there any activities, chores, apps, etc. that parents can use to help their kids work on this? There are things that parents can do that will inhibit this natural growth in self-control. Being “parental”—yelling at the child, sometimes screaming at the child, physical punishment—all of these measures turn on the “threat” lever in the brain and drive the child to the lower brain, where you are dysregulated and in simple “fight or flight.” When you strengthen this response, you are inhibiting learning to regulate, and can retard the growth of regulation.

When parents are thoughtful, modeling self-control, helping the child find ways to regulate and helping the child to reason—they are now in the process of helping the child truly learn self-control, self-regulation.

When we get hand-in-hand with the work of the growing brain, we are certainly doing much to assist in the child’s growth towards self-control. Remember, this is a 25-year-long work! Don’t despair when your child is not in self-control. They’ll get there, and you’ve got a lot of time to work in this area!

Image courtesy of iStock.