“Keep your hands to yourself.”
“Finish your work before you play.”
“Wait your turn.”
“Use your words to ask instead of snatching.”
“Think before you act.”
Many of the instructions we give our kids are about self-control. Self-control means being able to resist immediate temptations and avoid acting on impulse in order to achieve more important goals, such as learning or being kind. When kids have better self-control, they do better in school and get along better with others.
Self-control doesn’t have to mean effortful, teeth-gritting willpower. In fact, that kind of self-restraint is hard to keep up for long—even for adults. What works better is to help kids learn and use effective strategies for boosting self-control. According to Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues, there are three main strategies that kids can use to make self-control easier to manage.
- Change the Situation
The simplest and often most effective strategy for self-control involves changing the situation to reduce temptation. This is a very powerful self-control strategy because it involves minimal effort. For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight, not having sweets in the house makes it easier to eat healthy foods. Teaching kids this strategy involves helping them think about and choose circumstances that encourage good behavior.
For young children, this could mean sitting on the opposite end of the couch so they won’t be tempted to poke a sibling, or having fewer toys out so clean-up feels more manageable.
For school-age children, this could mean putting away electronic distractions during homework time, setting a timer to get a task done quickly, or figuring out whether they do their homework most efficiently in their bedroom or at the kitchen table. It could also mean choosing to hang out with kind friends who bring out the best in them, rather than the worst.
- Change Their Thinking
This strategy involves addressing what kids pay attention to and how they interpret situations. Planning and perspective can guide kids toward better choices.
Young children might want to create a visual reminder with pictures of the morning routine to help them remember what they need to do next. Having them repeat instructions you’ve given or answer a question such as, “What do you need to remember about how to behave in the library?” before entering a challenging situation can help kids stay focused on what they need to do.
For older kids, breaking down large projects into smaller steps can make the task seem more manageable. To keep their motivation going, they might want to make a list for themselves of top reasons why they want to change a habit or stick with a challenging activity.
Asking kids problem-solving questions such as “What would be a fair solution?”, “What can you do to help her feel better?”, or “How can we prevent this problem?” can also encourage thinking that leads to self-control.
Self-statements can also help prevent kids from becoming too distressed. Silently telling themselves, “I don’t like this, but I can handle it,” “I’m not going to let this get to me,” or “I’m strong enough to deal with this” can help kids find the strength to deal with tough circumstances.
- Change Their Response
Coping when they find themselves in a frustrating, scary, upsetting, or very exciting situation is the most difficult type of self-control. In these heated situations, it’s easy for kids to lash out, burst into tears, or refuse to cooperate. Having a plan that spells out what to do instead can help them hold onto self-control. You may want to use role-play to help your child practice the plan beforehand.
Young children who tend to hit when they get upset may find it useful to cross their arms and give themselves a little hug when they feel angry. Knowing how and whom to ask for help when they need it is also essential.
School-age children need to know how to handle ordinary teasing. Having rehearsed comments such as “So what?” or “Tell me when you get to the funny part” can help kids feel better equipped to deal with teasing without becoming very emotional.
Distraction can also be useful for self-calming. Your child could silently recite the alphabet or math facts, count floor tiles, sing song lyrics, remember a fun vacation, or plan a play date. Drawing, reading, or listening to music can be useful strategies when your child has to wait.
Watch It on PBS KIDS
Watch these video clips from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to learn more self-control strategies.
- Daniel Can’t Get the Cookies
- Grrr… Miss Elaina Threw Tigey!
- Use Your Words and Say How You Feel Song
This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.