Self-Control Strategies for Kids
Want to ensure your child’s success in life? Start teaching self-control skills. While there’s no sure-fire way to raise a future Olympian or Nobel Laureate, research shows that children with better self-control fare better in school and relationships than their more impulsive peers. Tiffany Sands, a licensed therapist in Chapel Hill, says few skills matter more to emotional, social, financial and academic success. Parents can — and should — be intentional about helping kids master self-control early in life, and continue emphasizing self-control through the teen years. Here’s how to impart the skills that boost future success, starting now.
Babies and toddlers are still working on sitting, walking and talking, but don’t underestimate your little one’s ability to learn self-control skills. “Self-control is about learning to control our impulses and behavior. It’s never too early to start helping children learn to manage these things,” Sands says. Learning to delay gratification is key to mastering self-control, Sands says. Giving your child a chance to learn self-soothing skills, within reason, can help build the understanding that some needs and wants aren’t immediately met. When your child calls for you and you’re busy, respond in a calm voice to let him know you heard, and that you’ll be with him in a few minutes, Sands says. Provide a toy or a visual distraction if needed, then step back and allow kids to play the waiting game for a minute or two. (Of course, you should always respond to your baby’s intense cries or physical needs right away.)
Don’t be surprised if a usually well-behaved grade-schooler starts showing signs of impulsivity, like sneaking ice cream before dinner, or taking new risks like lacing up her roller skates but skipping protective gear. Brain changes make kids more susceptible to rash actions during the tween years, but (happily) this behavior is typically a passing phase. “Often you’ll see waves of impulsivity as kids grow up. This might be worsened by kids trying to fit in with peers, or by what kids see in the media,” says John Sommers-Flanagan, associate professor at the University of Montana and a member of the American Counseling Association. Encourage better self-control with specific praise for progress: “I like how you ate all your vegetables at dinner, even though they’re not your favorite.” Foster self-control by establishing regular chores and setting up a consistent time to do homework. Making these “have-tos” part of everyday life helps kids power through tough tasks, even when they’d rather not.
When teens show signs of flagging self-control, like failing to study for an exam, don’t lose hope. An occasional slip-up isn’t a red flag, Sommers-Flanagan says. “Adults sometimes have problems with self-control, and so do teens. It’s normal.” But repeated missteps and loads of poor choices could signal the need for self-control SOS. Initiate a conversation about how the outcome — like the poor grade — could have been prevented. Ask your teen to think about what steps he needs to take to resolve the problem, such as carving out more time to study or sleep, and how you can support his efforts. Don’t forget to model self-control in your own life. Teens are keen parental observers, so when you hit the gym when you don’t feel like it, scarf down a healthy meal when you’d rather have cake, or resist an impulse purchase in order to sock away savings, talk to your teen about your choice. He may act disinterested, but he’ll pick up your message: Self-control is within reach, and something we work at for a lifetime.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.