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How to teach self-control to your child

little girl staring happily at some home-made cookies

Key points:

  1. Developing self-control in children is important for their overall success in life.
  2. The development of self-control during the early years can have long-lasting benefits for children, their families, and society.
  3. Lower scores on measures of self-control early in life can lead to health problems, financial difficulties, substance addictions, academic issues, aggressive behavior, and a criminal record in adulthood.
  4. Strategies for fostering the development of self-control in young children include providing a planned and predictable daily routine, teaching and talking about feelings and home rules, encouraging pretend play, and playing “stop and go” games.

The development of self-control should be a critical goal for children’s development because it leads to positive impacts in their life.

It is important to know that focusing efforts on properly strengthening self-control skills during the early years can have long-lasting benefits for children, their families, and society.

According to a study, self-control may be the secret ingredient to future health and wealth. In a long-term study led by psychologist Terrie Moffit from Duke University, 1,000 New Zealanders were followed for 32 years –starting at birth. Surprisingly, if you fast-forward to adulthood, the children who had lower scores on measures of self-control when they were three years old were more likely to have health problems, financial difficulties, substance addictions, academic issues, aggressive behavior, and a criminal record at age 32. 

Teaching self-control

As parents, one of our main responsibilities is to teach our children how to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. It has been well established that self-control is critical for a child to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. However, it is important to note that babies’ and toddlers’ prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with self-regulation and control) is not fully developed. Therefore, we cannot expect a kid that age to display the self-control of an adult. Your approach to setting limits should be according to your baby’s developmental stage.

The home environment plays a critical role in the development of self-control during your child’s early years. During infancy, babies begin to develop a sense of self, and providing responsive care and a secure attachment is key to facilitating their developmental process. 

In fact, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the Early Child Care Research Network found that the home environment of 0 to 5-year-olds can predict self-control skills in first grade. Having warm and supportive guidance from parents, as well as the necessary physical and social resources, is important to establishing the environment that fosters the development of self-control.

Fostering the development of self-control at home

Given the importance of fostering this skill, we wrote up some strategies you could use to encourage the regulation of your little one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. These suggestions that can help you get started:

  1. Make sure your child knows what’s coming next. For example, when you go to the grocery store, tell them “We’re going shopping, but today we are not going to buy candy. We are going to buy fruit, which is also sweet and delicious”. If your child repeats what you told them, they can use that to guide their behavior internally.
  2. Provide a planned and predictable daily routine and schedule. But also try making little adjustments to your previous routines, so your baby can learn to adapt to these changes without seeing them as challenging. 
  3. Do activities where your child has to follow instructions. Tell them the steps of what they have to do while they listen and follow the commands.
  4. Teach and talk about feelings and go over home rules frequently. Encourage your little one to describe their feelings; it is the first step to manage their emotions.
  5. Stay calm and firm in your voice and actions, even when your little one seems out of control.
  6. Encourage pretend play. You can provide items so your child takes different roles, for example playing a parent, a police officer, a rescue worker, a doctor, or a magician. In this role play, you can also try to act in certain situations where self-control is needed.
  7. Play “stop and go” or “freeze” games, where your child starts and stops doing different actions as directed by the game’s “leader”.

Overall, look for opportunities for your toddler to practice waiting and sharing. As your child grows and develops more self-control, you will be able to set more limits. With patience and consistency, your little one will develop this ability. Just remember to be patient and that nothing will work every time for a toddler, so keep adjusting your strategies!


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