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How to Teach Self-Control and Respect to Children

Imagine that you're at a grocery store, and your 5-year-old daughter spots candy, eyeing exactly the kind she wants. She begs you to buy it for her, but you calmly and firmly say no. She bursts into tears while kicking and screaming in the cart. Frustrated (and maybe a little embarrassed), you think, "Why can't she just accept my answer, just once! No self-control!"

How do we teach our children respect for our decisions and how to control their emotions? And what is the definition of self-control?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

A child crying for candy in a shopping cart

What Is the Self-Control Meaning?

Self-control is the ability to express our emotions and behaviors appropriately while respecting the rights of others. A child or person demonstrates self-control when they refrain from expressing their feelings or opinions—no matter how strong—without harming themselves or others.

Therefore, self-control is the capacity to choose from many possible behaviors a productive response to a feeling and experience.

Behaviors of a child or teen with self-control:

  • emotionally self-regulates
  • controls impulses
  • directs attention without being distracted
  • thinks before acting
  • discerns appropriate responses for varying situations
  • expresses emotions without hurting themselves or another
  • moderates their habits
  • delays gratification
  • can say no respectfully when disagreeing

Behaviors of a child or teen lacking self-control:

  • excessive talking
  • tech additions
  • raises voice to yell
  • impatient and easily frustrated
  • aggressive behaviors, such as hitting or throwing objects
  • expresses feelings at inappropriate times
  • communicates disrespectfully
  • bullies others
  • uncontrollably cries

As you can see, self-control is critical for a child or teen to learn and master. However, what few parents realize is that self-control develops over thousands of interactions with parents and caregivers, from infancy through adolescence. And restraining emotions and modulating behaviors are signs of a mature brain depending heavily on the prefrontal cortex.

In their book, Welcome to Your Child's Brain, Aamodt and Wang state: "The more complex ability to deliberately inhibit behavior, control impulses, and plan actions, called effortful control, is first seen at twenty-seven to thirty months of age.... Toddlers develop the ability to inhibit behavior on command between their second and third birthdays. Effortful control then improves rapidly until the fourth birthday and more slowly through age seven."

As a child's executive function grows, so will the strength of their cognitive control. Effortful control is best developed through consistent, calm, empathetic parenting where clear responses are given to a child's emotional experiences.

Related reading: "Teaching Emotional Control to Preteens and Teens."

Parenting Limits Create Safety for Children

If your child's out-of-control emotions are upsetting you, they most likely feel powerful. He or she definitely has your full attention.

So, what are your options in the above situation when a child has a tantrum at a grocery store?

Well, you could give in and buy the candy. But if you do, the child may learn to "misbehave" in order to get their needs or desires met. This then becomes a learned or conditioned behavior—you have trained your child to have a meltdown again.

Of course, you might decide instead to rely on some form of coercion to control your child: "You stop that right now or you're going to be in big trouble!" You might try bribes, threats, punishment, humiliation, rewards, or guilt... you get the idea.

However, when we move to control with ultimatums or punishment, our children and teens don't learn to control themselves. We weaken the very muscles that we want to be strengthened.

You might also lead the child to believe: "I don't have to control myself, because someone else will do it for me."

In addition, loving and firm limits create safety for a child, and without them, a child's misbehavior usually escalates.

There is a third option, which is to teach your child self-control.

Teach Your Child Self-Control—It Leads to Respectful Behavior!

We don't expect children to tie their shoes or a teenager to drive a car without instruction, but when it comes to self-control and respect, we often expect children to have these onboard without giving them the raw materials to build them.

Self-restraint and emotional regulation are skills that come with experience, practice, and meaningful feedback—they are not abilities that just appear one day. In fact, the really tricky part is that emotional control and self-respect are best nurtured by allowing full expression of emotions in a young, developing child—and this is something many parents find hard to do.

A father upset with his teenage son

Why Do Children's Emotions Set Us Off!?

We may not be comfortable with emotions in general because of the way our parents responded to our emotions. For example, when we got angry or cried when young, our parents shamed us, so when our own child has a big emotion, it triggers those painful memories.

Or 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 will test limits to feel safe. Our society claims to value freedom of expression in theory but disapproves of it in practice. Hmm... a contradiction for sure!

For instance, when the young child above wants candy and cries when you say no, they are exercising their right to emotional expression, no matter how embarrassing it may be. Or a teenager disagrees with their curfew and gets upset about what he views as an unreasonable limit. Again, asserting their freedom to express their objection.

A very important step in teaching children self-control is to first have a balanced and healthy attitude about emotion, so let's clear up some common myths about emotions.

The Myths and Truths of Healthy Emotions
Myth #1: Negative emotions are bad and wrong.
Truth #1: No emotion is bad or wrong. We are never bad or wrong for feeling what we feel. Part of being human is to feel.
Myth #2: We are victims of our emotions.
Truth #2: Emotions are simply energy moving through us. They signal us to take effective action. When we feel something negative, it is our cue that we are in need of caring for ourselves.
Myth #3: Our emotions are someone else's fault. We feel what we feel because of something someone did or said.
Truth #3: My emotions are mine and mine alone. No one can "make" me feel anything. My emotions are my responsibility.
Myth #4: Our right to emotional expression means that we are free to express ourselves no matter how it hurts others.
Truth #4: All emotional expression is okay as long as it does not harm another person or violate their rights. (Yelling outside while playing is okay; yelling in my ear indoors is not okay. Hitting a pillow is okay; hitting another person or animal is not okay.)

Deep Dive:  "How to Develop Healthy Emotional Development in Children."

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Ways to Assist a Child or Teen in Self-Control and Self-Regulation

Helping 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!

  • Act as an accurate mirror for children's and teens' 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. Mirroring accurately helps children learn to identify what emotions they're feeling while acknowledging the right to feel.

  • Help children connect the dots of their behavior.
    When we gently point out to children the impact of their emotional expression—for better or for worse—they 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. Impulsive behaviors often stem from a need to learn how to modulate their emotions.

  • Nurture emotional expression by empathizing and validating your child's emotions.
    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.

Visionary parenting invites us to empathize with our childTeaching self-control requires tremendous focus, effort, and consistency from parents. And for children, controlling themselves requires self-regulation abilities. However, in the process of teaching self-control to children, we 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. Visionary parenting asks each of us to ground in our values and respond instead of reacting. Although this is a tall order, when our children learn self-control, they enjoy an immovable inner peace that no one can steal from them. And at the end of the day, isn't that worth the effort?

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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