I bet you’ve heard about the Marshmallow experience. A group of researchers led by Walter Mischel placed four-year-old children in front of a table on which was placed one marshmallow and told them that if they waited for a few moments (the researcher left the room for 15 minutes), they would get two marshmallows. Some kids were able to wait for the researcher and get two marshmallows, others were not.
Years later, the researchers followed up with the children who had participated in the study and found that in adulthood, those who had been able to wait for the second marshmallow had more self-control, better career success, a better family life, enjoyed better physical health and were happier overall than those who had not been able to wait.
Other studies have found similar results: your children’s ability to delay gratification has an impact on their self-control skills and on their outcomes later in life. Self-control in children is not simply a question of delaying gratification. It is also about how your child reacts to specific situations.
Signs of self-control in children
Children’s self-control has been described in many different ways including:
- the ability to avoid distractions and keep on track,
- reduced impulsivity,
- the ability to stay focused on a specific activity,
- the ability to do what one is expected depending on the context and so on.
Here are a few behavior traits your child may display if he lacks self-control.
Cognitive symptoms of poor self-control in children
- If your son lacks self-control, he is likely to frequently display agitated behavior (for instance, he may often be unable to sit still)
- These children are likely to also lack focus and concentration (for instance, they may find it difficult to finish tasks or to practice patience)
- If your daughter is struggling with control issues, she is likely to be easily distracted by intrusive thoughts (for instance, she may be more likely to daydream or find it hard to avoid intrusive thoughts)
- These children find it difficult to think ahead.
- If your child has poor self-control, he is likely to “act first, then think later”.
Behavioral symptoms of bad self-control in your child
- Aggressive behavior is one of the symptoms of low self-control in children. This can be explained by your child’s inability to control her reactions.
- Your child is also more likely to display anti-social behavior such as lying, stealing, risky behavior, and so on.
- She also has a higher chance of being socially isolated.
Psychological symptoms of children’s lack of self-control in your child
- If your child is unable to control himself, he is also likely to struggle with difficult emotions such as anger and anxiety. This may mean regular tantrums or repeated bouts of anxiety.
- He is also more likely to struggle with low self-esteem issues.
- Depression has also been associated with poor self-control in children.
- If your daughter has self-control issues, she is likely to be stressed even when faced with minor obstacles.
Physical symptoms of lack of self-control in children
- Fatigue is not uncommon among these children. This can be explained by inadequate sleep because of their inability to avoid distractions.
- Children with poor self-control are also more likely to display physical injuries resulting from risky or aggressive behavior.
The capacity to practice patience is a marker of success, but several researchers suggest that it takes more than simply being able to delay gratification to predict later personal achievement. They say that children’s home environment and factors such as race and parents’ education play a major role in whether or not children are able to develop self-control. The good news is that your child can be taught to exercise self-control.
How to teach your child self-control
Research has shown time and time again that children with low self-control are also those who suffer most academically, socially and psychologically. They have poorer academic results, fewer friends, and are also more likely to struggle with issues such as anxiety or even aggressive behavior.
There is no need to stress if you have noticed some of the symptoms listed above in your child. All children struggle with self-control at some point in their lives, and the areas in which they struggle with differ. One child may be able to sit still in class and keep attentive, but be unable to resist on-screen distractions; another child may be able to concentrate for hours when playing with Lego, but be completely unable to sit still in class for more than ten minutes.
Self-control is especially difficult for children before age seven, but generally they are able to better control themselves as they get older. That said, some children are better at practicing self-control than others but even those who struggle can be helped to increase their self-control. Here are easy ways to get started.
Seven easy tips to foster self-control in your child
- Letting your children know what is expected of them can help build self-control
It is easier for children to practice self-control when they know what is expected of them. This is especially true for younger children who have more trouble remembering and abiding by the rules, and who are also more easily distracted. This could look something like asking your child to say out loud what she is expected to do in a specific homework exercise. It could also mean setting clear routines to help guide your child’s behavior – “every time you get home from school, you have to first __________________then _____________________then you can _____________________”.
Routines are especially helpful for young children because they foster automaticity and thus help structure their behavior.
Another easy way to help strengthen your child’s self-control is to ask her to work on a specific activity for a given period of time. For example, you can give her a timer and tell her that she can stop when the timer goes off.
2) Give your child an opportunity to practice self-control
If you keep doing everything for your children, you prevent them from developing important self-control skills. It is therefore important to provide opportunities for them to practice their self-discipline skills.
One of the most effective ways of encouraging your child to practice self-control is to involve him in the decision-making process. For example, letting him know that he can have screen time after his shower and homework makes him responsible for deciding when to shower and do his homework if he wants to play a video game.
Remember that it is possible for even the youngest children to plan their activities by themselves. Resources such as “Nurturing constructive boredom” are designed to not only help your child plan their day but to also help boost his autonomy and concentration.
3) Positive reinforcement can help reinforce your child’s self-control
Reinforcing self-control behavior is an easy way to increase self-control in your child. An easy way to achieve this is to notice and highlight every time your child shows self-control, and to give him specific feedback about exactly what he did that shows self-control: “I like how you waited patiently for your turn instead of grabbing the ball”; “You finished your homework before switching on the TV, that’s so great”, etc.
A lot of controversy surrounds the use of rewards to reinforce specific behavior. Some people believe that rewarding self-control in children can help increase it, others argue that rewarding self-control can teach your child to practice this behavior only if she will be rewarded for it.
While I believe that a child does not need to be consistently rewarded to behave in a specific way, I am convinced that using positive reinforcement can help the children struggling most with self-control issues. The thing to remember is that positive reinforcement is not meant to be a “permanent strategy”. It is designed for short-term use, as a tool to help change specific negative behavior and to help your child permanently replace that behavior with positive behavior.
There is ample evidence that positive reinforcement can help change negative behavior, but only if this strategy is applied correctly. If you would like to try positive reinforcement to increase your child’s self-control, the Positive Behavior Kit will give you the tools you need to apply this approach in a way that works.
4) Keep your child away from distractions
Many people are unable to resist everyday temptations, and your child is no different. It is actually more difficult for children to practice self-control in the face of temptation. In the experiment mentioned earlier, some of the children who succeeded in waiting for the second marshmallow did so because they avoided looking at the temptation.
Changing your child’s environment is an easy way to encourage her to practice self-control. This may mean installing a “no screens during homework” rule or even avoiding shopping with your child when possible (or avoiding the aisles with toys or candy when shopping with her).
5) Playing certain games can help strengthen your child’s self-control skills
Privileging games that help your child practice self-control is an easy way to foster those skills. Board games or any other games that require players to wait their turn can help your child learn about waiting and patience.
Two researchers, Shauna Tominey and Megan McClelland, have shown that games that have rules that encourage children to listen, pay attention and follow directions are highly effective in helping them develop their self-control skills. They say that reversing the rules of classic games such as “Red light, Green light” (Asking your child to go when he hears red, and to stop when he hears green) or even “Head shoulders knees and toes” (asking your child to touch a body part other than the one he hears) can help strengthen his self-control skills.
6) Foster your child’s sense of achievement
Success breed success. This means that the more your child encounters success, the higher the chances that her self-control skills will increase. Encouraging your child to participate in age-appropriate chores is an easy way to help develop her sense of responsibility and accountability, and to strengthen her self-control.
Some researchers have found that the more your child feels that she has a certain amount of autonomy, the more likely she is to cooperate. An easy way to achieve this with regard to chores is to provide age-appropriate chore cards and ask her to choose the chores that she would like to do.
7) Pay attention to how you respond to your child’s lack of self-control
Parenting plays a major role in your children’s behavior. We now know that being too permissive (either ignoring negative behavior or giving in to your child to calm the storm) or being too authoritarian (expecting your kids to do as you say without question) can have a negative impact on their self-control skills.
Research says that to raise happy and successful children, parents need to be both firm and responsive. This means setting clear expectations, sharing those expectations with your child, setting clear consequences when those expectations are not met. It also means remaining attentive to your child’s needs and being willing to take those needs into account when necessary.
When should you worry about your child’s lack of self-control
As with all behavioral issues in children, your child’s poor self-control could point to more serious issues. Please seek professional help if:
- Your child is engaging in self-harmful behavior (head banging, hurting himself, etc.)
- Your child is aggressive (frequent fights, breaking things, etc.)
- Your child completely refuses to follow rules
- Your child’s behavior does not change despite your intervention (your discipline strategy has no impact on him)
- Your child’s behavior has an impact on other areas of his life (school, clubs, friendships, etc.)
- Your child’s displays developmentally inappropriate behavior
If you feel unable to help your child overcome his self-control problem, a professional will give you the tools you need to identify and implement alternative techniques.