Most of us are familiar with a child who just can’t seem to sit still, or who has emotional outbursts at inappropriate times, or who can’t seem to stick to a given task.
These behaviors signify a lack of self-control (or self-regulation), according to Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, associate director of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.
A child with self-discipline, on the other hand, is able to respond and react to stressful situations in ways that bring about positive outcomes. Say, for example, you tell your child he can only have ice cream after dinner. Your child will complain by screaming and crying, hoping you’ll give in.
In situations like this, you want to teach your child how to manage his emotions and control his impulse to throw a tantrum. The ideal scenario is he sees that the consequence to his actions MAY lead to you taking the ice cream away altogether. Hopefully, he will learn that it will be wiser to wait.
Children with high self-control are able to set goals and follow through with them, like being able to finish the day’s homework everyday on their own, for example. It is a trait that will benefit him later in life--one study published last year in the journal Psychological Science found that children with higher self-control are more likely to find and retain jobs as adults. They can better set goals, solve problems and control impulses.
So how do you do teach your child self-control? Practice, says psychologist Dr. Laura Markham. It’s normal for a toddler to have little self-control as the part of the brain that controls it--the prefrontal cortex--isn’t fully developed yet. But as a child grows older, the prefrontal cortex also matures. And to instill discipline in your child, strengthening the prefrontal cortex, so to speak, through practice while he is young is crucial.
According to Dr. Padilla-Walker in her research, you want your child to develop self-control in three aspects: behavioral (which is how your child controls his body and behaviors), emotional (how your child controls his feelings and moods) and cognitive (how your child effectively sets goals and follows through). She and Dr. Markham suggest these tips on how to you can help your child develop these aspects:
1. Build trust. The foundation of self-control is trust, says Dr. Markham, and you build trust by being attentive to your child’s emotional needs. Going back to the ice cream example, if your child trusts that you will keep your word and give him ice cream after dinner, he will learn to soothe his own impatience and manage himself. 2. Embrace struggles and failure. There are many things to learn from challenges and discipline is one of them. A difficult problem, like a science project, can teach your child how to problem solve. Learning to ride a bike--and falling every so often--will help your child learn how to regulate frustrating emotions. 3. Set reasonable limits. “Every time we set a limit that our child accepts, she's practicing self-control,” says Dr. Markham. Imagine your child busy playing with his toys. You, on the other hand, want him to get dressed for school already. Punishing him by saying you’ll take his toys away if he doesn’t get dressed will not teach him self-control since you’re forcing him. But if you tell him you’ll give him five more minutes to play and he accepts this, he’ll be able to control himself better and stop playing when the time is up.
4. Model good self-control. Children are big copiers. They learn from how you behave and act. So, when you have difficulty managing your own emotions and get angry easily, they will model their behavior after you. What’s more, whenever you lash out at your child, your child can get upset and makes it more difficult for him to control his own emotions and behavior.
“Regulate your own emotions so you can stay calm and compassionate with your child,” says Dr. Markham. And because no parent is perfect and there may be times that you slip, Dr. Padilla-Walker suggests apologizing and discussing with your child what you should have done differently, soothing him and teaching him about self-control at the same time.
5. Motivate. A child learns self-control best when he is motivated to do so by something that’s important to him. For example, your child wants to play with other kids. To do so, he has to learn to get along with others which requires him to manage his emotions and impulses, thus he learns self-control.
“Every time a child has to manage himself, he learns a strategy that helps him,” says Dr. Markham. You can create these “managing” opportunities for your child by encouraging his interests. If your child is into baking, support him. Making cookies will teach him how to wait until the cookies bake. Practicing soccer hones discipline by requiring your child to repeat moves over and over again until he masters them.
“The brain is like a muscle -- it strengthens throughout life, depending on how it's used. Parents who are emotionally responsive, set empathic limits, model emotional regulation, and encourage children to pursue their passions will raise self-disciplined kids,” says Dr. Markham.