How to Teach Self-Control and Respect to Children

You're in a grocery store and your 5-year-old is riding in the shopping cart. She spots the candy section and asks to buy some jellybeans. You calmly but firmly say no as you continue to push the cart past the candy. She bursts into tears and increasingly gets upset. Frustrated you think, "If she could only accept no for an answer, just once! Will she ever learn to control herself?"

But she is not in the least bit interested in self-control or respect at that moment, only the candy. A brain seeking pleasure is a powerful force! Besides, the child's being out of control may be upsetting you, and if so, the child feels powerful. She definitely has your full attention. So, how do you teach your child respect for your decisions and how to control their emotions? A child crying for candy in a shopping cart

Parenting Limits Create Safety for Children

What are your options in the above situation? Well, you could give in and buy the candy. But if you do, the child learns to "misbehave" in order to get her 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, guilt... you get the idea. But when we move to control with ultimatums, our children and teens don't learn to control themselves. We weaken the very muscles that we want to be strengthened.

You have also led the child to an ah-hah experience: "I don't have to control myself, because someone else will do it for me." In addition, limits create safety for a child and without them, a child's misbehavior usually escalates.

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

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

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

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 and meaningful feedback—it is not something that just appears 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 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. For instance, when a teenager disagrees with their curfew and gets upset about what he views as an unreasonable limit.

Self-Control Definition

To make sure we are on the same page, let me describe how I see self-control: Self-control is the ability to choose from many possible behaviors a productive response to a feeling and experience. A child or teen has self-control when they express and channel their feelings and opinions—no matter how strong—in a way that does not harm themselves or someone else and respects the rights of others.

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 are our guides that 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 is okay; yelling in my ear 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."

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

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!

  • 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. Impulsive kids 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 by 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 immoveable 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’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for over twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown, fantastic children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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