Teaching Children Self-Control

Teaching Children Self-Control

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Impulse control is a developmental issue dating back to infancy

A toddler will bite a friend who takes his shovel. A ten year old will slam the door in your face when you tell him he cannot have a cell phone. This lack of self-control deeply upsets parents. They want their children to behave appropriately and get along well with others.

It is important to know that impulse control is a developmental issue dating back to infancy. Babies have quick instantaneous urges, that are driven by their needs, emotions and desires. It takes children years to gain the skills they need to control these impulses. They need to develop judgment, an awareness of consequences and the language to talk about their emotions.

Biology is one key factor in the growth process. The area of the brain called the “cerebral cortex” helps children control their impulses. As it develops, the child has more of an ability to stop himself. But keep in mind, this area of the brain is actually not fully developed until the mid-twenties. Life experience also powerfully impacts on reigning in impulses. For instance, rather than push another child in line when he’s waiting to wash his hands for snack, your child learns: “I better wait my turn or the teacher will get angry.”

As a parent, you have a major role in helping your child to gain impulse control. You will need to patiently educate your child in a positive way about what she needs to do in situations. Here are some pointers:

Set a clear, yet firm limit. For example, if your ten year old is hitting your four year old, say, “We don’t hit anyone in the family.”

Explain the reason

You can simply say,“ We don’t hurt anyone in the family.” Remind him of times when he was hurt physically by another person, perhaps his younger brother. Talk about how it felt. This will help him to step into his younger brother’s shoes and perhaps stop himself the next time (or sometime down the road.) Using an objective reason also helps. You can say, “It’s our job to take care of the family.” It becomes less of, “because I said so” , and more of a general rule of family life.

Acknowledge your child’s emotions. You might say, “I can see that you’re angry. Tell me what made you mad.”

Encourage your child to use words to express her emotions. You can tell her, “When you’re angry, you need to use words” and give her a phrase to use such as, “I’m angry” or “I don’t like it when you take my shovel away.”

Have your child practice using words to express himself. You can play a game called , “What if…”and have him put his emotions into words in different scenarios, or use dolls or action figures to enact these situations. You can also use a technique with young children that teachers find helpful: Have two warring children face each other and hold one hand of each child gently. Then encourage the children to talk to each other about their feelings.`

Find a positive solution for the problem

For instance, if the initial cause of aggressive behavior emanated from a battle over who goes first in a game, set up a record called “Whose turn is it?” with a place to mark the date, and have the children refer to this paper to avoid battles.

Be patient

Controlling impulses is a very hard thing for kids to do. Even adults struggle to gain self-control when they have strong emotions. You will need to repeat the rules over and over again in a calm and non-critical way. For instance, reminding him, “There is no hitting allowed.”

Over time your child will gain better control. Your child will form a conscience or a superego sometime around the 5th year of life. This happens when your child internalizes your rules. Your rules become the voice inside his head that acts as a stop sign preventing your child from taking a negative action. Juggling his wants and needs,versus this developing inner voice will be the way he’ll learn to exercise good judgment and make positive behavioral choices.

Your child’s major motivator will be to win your love and approval. (She loves you and wants your approval more than anything, which may be hard to believe as she takes actions that create havoc.)This explains why it is crucial to communicate with your child in a kind way that is accepting of her mistakes. Your child will benefit from a voice inside that is not harsh or critical. Otherwise, she will relate to herself harshly and become furious with herself whenever she makes a mistake. It is far better that she feels general love for herself and can recognize her mistakes, take responsibility, and find a way to fix a situation.