7 Ways to Teach Your Child Self-Control

By: Dr Justin Coulson

Self-control isn’t something we’re born with – its something we hone as we grow. Children especially struggle with control and delayed gratification, but there are ways in which we can guide them to the right behaviour in childhood. I have 7 ways to teach your child self-control, as a matter of fact!

You’ve probably heard of the marshmallow experiment. In the 1960’s researcher Walter Mischel brought several hundred 4-year-old kids into the lab, sat them in front of a table with a marshmallow on a plate (or some other treat) and said, “I can give you this now, or if you wait, I’ll go out of the room and do something. When I come back if you haven’t eaten this one, I’ll give you another one. If you can wait, you can have two. But if you don’t wait for me, you only get the one.”

What would your 4-year-old do? Eat the marshmallow? Or wait?

What would you do?

The researcher found that self-control in the marshmallow experiment predicted, among other things, those kids’ later high school and career success. Other research has shown that self-control predicts success, family stability, physical health, and even happiness. Lack of self-control is associated with using alcohol and illicit substances, unemployment, and even jail.

How much self-control does your child show? Would you agree with the following statements about your child?

  • My child is persistent in activities.
  • My child thinks ahead.
  • My child is attentive and able to concentrate.
  • My child thinks before speaking or acting.
  • My child responds to reason.

If you have answered ‘yes’ to these statements then your child probably already has high self-control.

What about these statements?

  • My child is stubborn.
  • My child is unable to delay gratification.
  • My child tends to go to pieces under stress.
  • My child overreacts to minor frustrations.
  • My child becomes anxious when the environment is unpredictable.

If you have answered ‘yes’ to these statements then your child is likely to be lower on self-control.

Now for the good news. We now know, from decades of studies, that self-control is malleable. Some people have high self-control from an early age. Some people become more self-controlled as they mature. And most importantly, most people, regardless of their baseline level of self-control, can be taught to exercise greater control.

Here are 7 ways to teach your child self-control:

1. Talk about it.

At the dinner table, describe what self-control is and share examples of when you’ve shown self-control. Talk about how it helped you be a better mum or dad, or worker, or boss. Then ask your kids to talk about how they showed self-control that day. Do this several times each week. As you make discussions about self-control part of your daily routine, your children will see how you show it, and they’ll learn how you value it. They’ll see it in action. And they’ll begin to show it in their own lives. This is the single best way to teach self-control: identifying successes and failures with it in daily life and improving in meaningful ways.

2. Decide out of the situation.

We call this making cold, rather than hot, decisions. It means we decide that we will not be eating dessert at breakfast or lunchtime, rather than as we finish our main meal and see the chocolate cake with fresh cream and raspberries. Help children make decisions about kindness to siblings, social media, gaming or any other issue when emotions are cool rather than during the heat of battle.

During your dinnertime discussions you might decide on something that your child wants to show control in. While emotions are cool you can help your child decide on what to do if things get challenging. Then you can talk about tip #3 below.

3. Give gentle reminders.

If your child is about to lose control, gently remind him or her to think of a way to stay calm and make wise choices. Researchers have found that regular gentle reminders keep us on track and making wiser decisions than we might otherwise have.

4. Avoid rewards.

If we reward self-control, children will start to think it’s only worth being controlled if they can get a goody. We want them to recognise why it matters and make their own decisions. Star charts and treats mean our child isn’t controlling herself – we are!

Being in charge of our lives is our own reward. So let me make this point really carefully because I know it’s controversial for some people. When we reward our kids for showing self-control, we’re actually controlling them ourselves! The rewards are doing the controlling. If they are genuinely intrinsically motivated, they don’t need us to control them. They’ll do it themselves – and the more autonomously they do it (that is, the more they feel they are choosing for themselves), the better the outcomes.

5. Wait.

When you or your child really want something, talk about whether it might be a good idea to wait. Whether it’s sneaking a treat, checking social media or hitting a sibling (!), encourage your child to wait ten minutes and see if it’s still something he feels he must do.

6. Play self-control games.

Games like “freeze”, “sleeping lions”, drumming/rhythm games or “red light, green light” require a child to follow instructions or patterns, listen, be controlled, and make changes. This link take you to a Pinterest page with some great ideas for playing these games with your children. Check them out and have some fun while you teach the value of self-control.

7. Be an example.

If you’re lacking in self-control your child will learn from you and act accordingly. When they see you eat too much, spend too much time in front of screens, or do whatever else it may be that’s a lousy example, they’ll think it’s fine for them to do it too.

This is especially important when we respond to our children’s big emotions. If we respond with disapproval or dismissal to our children, we show less control than when we turn towards them with compassion and kindness. By saying, “Oi, cut it out”, or by responding to challenging behaviour with “If you keep it up, I’ll just ignore you”, we show limited self-control towards them. Even more important, our responses don’t help our children control their emotions in positive ways. Telling them to cut it out or get over it just makes their emotions bigger. They might push them down and away, but inside, they’re getting all torn up.

Instead, explore your child’s emotion, identify its cause, label it, and help them work through it. I describe this process in detail in different ways in each of my books. (It’s so important I’ve included it in every book I’ve written!)

Our child’s life outcomes are not found in their response to a tasty marshmallow. Doing the marshmallow test with them might be fun. But whether they choose to eat it or wait for two isn’t really that important.

Instead, their life outcomes are found in the way we teach them to make wise decisions, even when they don’t really want to. As we teach them to view self-control as an asset, and to make wise choices (without being militant about controlling everything), they’ll develop the skills to distract themselves, see obstacles as opportunities, and stay healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.