You’re in a grocery store and your 5-year-old wants a candy bar at the checkout stand. You calmly but firmly say no. Before you can turn back to the checkout person, your child is on the floor kicking and screaming! What do you do?
Of course, many parents in this situation are mortified, and the child knows it. “If he would just control himself!” you think. But the child has you in the grips of emotional tyranny. He's not at all interested in learning self-control or saving you a possible embarrassment. However, the child does know there’s a chance that his ploy might actually work. Besides, the child’s being out of control may be upsetting you, and if so, the child feels powerful. He definitely has your attention!
What are your options in this situation?
OPTION 1: Give in to your child
Yep, you could give in and buy the candy bar to quiet your child. But if you do, the child learns to “misbehave” in order to get his needs or desires met. This then is the beginning of a possible learned or conditioned behavior.
Result: You have trained your child to misbehave again by rewarding his behavior!
OPTION 2: Threaten or overpower your child
Of course, you might decide instead to rely on some form of coercion to control your child: “You stop that right now or there will be no TV for a week!" You might try bribes, threats, punishment, humiliation, rewards, guilt… you get the idea. But when we move to control our children and teens (“Do that one more time and you’re grounded!”), they don’t learn to control themselves.
Result: You've weakened the very muscles that we want strengthened—self-control.
OPTION 3: Teach Your Child Self-Control
This third option is a lifetime gift to you and your child. Let your child build the muscles of emotional regulation and self-control. It's like giving them super powers that many adults don't even have.
Result: Your child learns to calm frustration, delay gratification, and regulate his or her emotions—skills that will serve him for a lifetime.
We don’t expect young children to tie their shoes on their own without instruction, but when it comes to self-control, we often expect children to have it without giving them the raw materials to build it.
What few parents realize is that self-control develops over thousands of interactions with parents and caregivers, from infancy through adolescence. It is a skill that comes with experience, practice, and feedback. It is not something that just magically appears one day. In fact, the really tricky part is that emotional control is best nurtured by allowing full expression of emotions in a young, developing child—and this is something parents often find hard to do.
Why do children’s emotions set us off?
We may be uncomfortable with emotions in general, because of the way our parents responded to our emotions. We may be embarrassed by a child’s public tantrum because of the social expectation that good parents don’t have children who act like that. But in fact, children test limits to feel safe.
To make sure we are on the same page, let me describe how I see self-control (or emotional regulation): Self-control is the ability to choose a productive response to a feeling or feelings from a multitude of possible behaviors.
A child or teen has learned self-control when they can feel any emotion, even a very strong emotion like anger, while taking care of themselves and also respecting others.
Self-control comes from the ability to regulate internal experiences (thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and the meanings that are formed from those experiences) in order to take effective action in varying situations.
Whenever parents are truly present to a child’s emotions and lovingly help them to determine what they need, the child learns to listen to their emotions as a guide to constructive action.
As a child experiences different relationships and circumstances, it is a parent’s job to provide a safe space for the child to explore their experience. Once the muddied waters of emotion calm, a child will often take responsible and loving action for themselves and others.
To help children and teens express emotions appropriately is no small task.
Here are some ways to begin to teach healthy emotional expression while respecting the rights of others, which ultimately builds the foundation for self-control.
- Effectively model healthy ways to handle feelings. Children will do what they see. Modeling is without a doubt the most powerful teaching tool. Remember: Sometimes children can’t hear what we are saying because our actions are so loud!
Related reading: "How to Build Healthy Emotional Development in children."
- Act as an accurate mirror for children’s and teen’s emotions. As parents, we can mirror back feelings at every developmental stage. We mirror back the anger of an infant not wanting a diaper changed. Or the sadness of a toddler who just had a toy grabbed away by a sibling. Or the upset of a high schooler who studied hard for an algebra test but got a mediocre grade.
- Help children connect the dots of their behavior. When we gently point out to children the impact of their emotional expression, they can begin to see their effect on others. If they are in control, the consequences of their behavior will be totally different than if they lose control.
- Nurture emotional expression by empathizing and validating your child’s emotions and experience. Sometimes all a child needs is for you to understand why they are feeling something. Feelings that are validated are diffused; feelings unacknowledged build up until they are discharged.
Related reading: "How to Teach to Children and Create Understanding"
Teaching self-control requires tremendous focus, effort, and consistency by parents. However, in the process of teaching self-control to children, we often find that it is we who grow up. To be able to stand calmly and deliberately regardless of what is thrown at us takes incredible strength of character. And when our children have learned self-control, they will enjoy an immoveable inner peace and self-esteem that no one can steal from them.
Root into visionary parenting and stay in touch with your deepest values; keep the long-term goals you have for your children top of mind.
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