Helping Children to Build Their Self-Control

Helping Children to Build Their Self-Control

“Calm down!”, “Stop doing that!” These are things that adults say to children all the time. What they really mean is “Control yourself!” And self-control is no easy task for children. It is even hard for adults. Think about a time when you really wanted something, like say that double-glazed chocolate donut sitting in the kitchen, but you knew that you had to do something else, like eat carrot sticks. How did you manage that? You had to find a way to stop yourself from doing the thing that was more appealing (or easier) and do the thing that was harder instead.

The ability to do this is called inhibitory control. And it is critical to many things in life. It is important for social interactions. Think about what would happen if every time someone else got in our way, we did the first thing that came to mind, like yelling at them or striking out. Instead, often we have to take a deep breath and say “Excuse me” with a nice smile. Children have to use these same skills with their peers. If another child takes the toy your child was about to play with, you would probably prefer that your child say “Please give that to me” instead of hitting the other child.

We also need to use inhibitory control when we have to concentrate on a task that might seem boring or hard, like cleaning the gutters, instead of doing something more fun or easier, like reading that great book sitting by your lawn chair. Children are often faced with doing hard things when they are at school, such as concentrating on sounding out words to read them. This is a place where they really need inhibitory control to stop them from doing something that is easier, like talking to their friends.

So you can see how inhibitory control is a very important skill for many things in children’s (and adults’) lives. The interesting thing about inhibitory control is that it takes a long time to develop. The part of the brain that “runs” inhibitory control is called the prefrontal cortex. (Sometimes you also hear this referred to as the “frontal lobes”.) This part of the brain keeps developing until young adulthood. So neither children nor adolescents should be expected to have mastered this skill.

You can think about inhibitory control as a muscle (just like we said about attention last week). So with more exercise, inhibitory control gets stronger. Also, like most muscles, inhibitory control doesn’t act on its own. Muscles are supported by other muscles and bones. Inhibitory control is supported by other skills, like memory, and problem solving. So when a friend snatches a toy from your child, he first has to remember that you have told him not to hit his friends (memory). Then he has to stop himself from doing that (inhibitory control). Next, he needs to think of something else to do, like saying “Please give that back” (problem-solving). Phew! That is a lot of skills!

So how do you help your child practice inhibitory control? There are a number of (fun) things you can do:

  • Play Simon Says– This helps children with inhibitory control because they have to stop themselves from doing anything that doesn’t begin with “Simon says….” They also have to remember the rules, so it builds working memory.
  • Teach your child how to distract himself– Sometimes children can stop themselves from doing something they really want to do, like peeking at a present, by distracting themselves. Talk to them about how they could think about other things instead of what they want to, but shouldn’t, do. Maybe you can make up a rhyme or a song together that would help your child focus on something else besides the “forbidden” thing.
  • Help your child think of alternative behaviors – If you want your child to avoid doing one thing, then you have to give her different things to do. For example, if your child’s first impulse when she hears you say “It’s time for bed” is to shriek “No!” loudly, and you want her to stop, you need to give her something different to do.  For example, maybe you would like her to take a deep breath and go pick a book for the bedtime story time. Tell her and then practice the behavior with positives when she does a good job.
  • Give your child consistency and routines – Research has shown that when children know what to expect and have parents who are consistent in their responses, they have better inhibitory control and self-regulation. So this means that if you tell your child that something, like going to the store, is going to happen, then you should go to store (unless something major comes up). Or if you tell your child that you will put his ball away if he bounces it in the house again, and he does, then you need to put the ball away. When children know what to expect and what the rules are, they are better able to follow the rules and develop inhibitory control.
  • Model it – As we often say, one of the best way to teach your child a skill is to let her see YOU do it. So the next time you feel like saying something mean to someone who bumps into you in a crowded store, but smile and say “excuse me” instead, tell your child about it. And also tell your child HOW you stopped yourself from being mean. Maybe you counted to 10 or took a deep breath. Show her how.

Inhibitory control is a very important regulation skill. Just remember the next time you want to tell your child to “Stop!”,  that it’s not as easy as it sounds.  But together, you can build up the skill in both your child and yourself.

Image: © Photographerlondon | Dreamstime.com

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Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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