Teaching children self-control accomplishes more than learning how to control their emotions. It teaches them that life is not made up of one crisis after another. Self-control teaches them that they can handle any given situation, that everything has a solution if you stay objective toward the challenge.

Kids who can stay in control of their emotions on the playground and at school will mature into adults who practice self-control at work and home.

Adults often teach more by example than words. If parents and teachers lack self-control and have angry outbursts, anxiety attacks, and are fearful, they are demonstrating the inability to handle circumstances. If they practice self-control, however, they are confirming to the children that no matter what happens, you can do something about it. It shows a child that a situation is better managed from a relaxed, peaceful state and more is accomplished when you are in control of your emotions. Angry outburst may lead to saying harmful things; while a calm reaction may disentangle a tricky situation with a successful outcome.

Toddlers and Self-Control

You may assume that because the 2-year old repeated the rules and instructions, they will have the self-control to follow it. Unfortunately, a toddler’s brain isn’t developed yet to practice self-control. They start learning that from the ages of 3 ½ years to 4 years old, and they need plenty of guidance and help from parents.

Your child isn’t rude when they grab another child’s toy, they simply don’t have the ability yet to understand that it is wrong, and they should control their desire and consider other people’s feelings too.

Soothing a child and building a peaceful environment, may help towards developing and strengthening their brain into choosing calming and peaceful options. By strengthening these neural pathways, the child will be able to control their emotions and impulses.

The opposite is also true. Living in an anxious, emotionally explosive environment may train the brain to protect by acting impulsively—fight or flight actions. The child grows up controlled by whatever triggers their emotions instead of them being in control.

One way of teaching their brains to connect their actions with the results is to affirm it daily. Explain the rule and the consequences and then implement it. The repetition will help their brain to make the connection between acting on impulse and the consequences, versus practicing self-control and the rewards.

Help your toddler manage emotional triggering situations. For example, don’t take a tired child to the shops. Rather wait until they are rested after a night or a good night’s sleep. Some toddlers don’t like crowds, even at birthday parties, and others have difficulty adapting to change. Create a plan to reduce these triggers in your child’s life.

A Self-Control Environment

If disappointed too often, even adults loose trust and won’t believe the promise or the desired outcome. If teachers and parents don’t keep their promises, children lose trust. They stop believing the promise of a reward. Then when you want to teach them self-control, they don’t deem it worthwhile to wait because they don’t believe there is a reward or consequences.

Create a trusting environment where the child believes the adult because the adult’s ‘yes’ is ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no.’

In the famous marshmallow tests of the 70s, children were given the option to wait 15 minutes and receive another marshmallow if they didn’t eat the one in front of them. Results showed that the kids who waited were the ones who ended up doing well at school, didn’t have weight issues, weren’t prone to addiction, and were more likely to finish college.

In 2012, Celeste Kidd had another look at the reason why some kids were prepared to wait for the delayed gratification of another marshmallow while other kids ate the marshmallow. She found that it wasn’t just willpower that inspired the kids to wait for a greater reward. With her tests, it was proven that trust played a major role. Children were prepared to wait if they trusted the promise based on previous experience. Their experiences weren’t only formed by how reliable adults were toward the kids, but also how adults acted toward others in their company.

As mentioned before, an emotional and volatile atmosphere will steer the child in the opposite of self-control. They will follow the example set by the adults as a guide on how to act and react.

Setting Boundaries Teaches Self-Control

As the kids grow older and start going to school, they are exposed to more challenges that are different from what they are familiar with. Their environment expands to places and people outside their home environment. Self-control is an important skill for children to flourish in the larger world.

To learn self-control, kids need to understand boundaries. To understand boundaries, they must grasp empathy.

For a child to respect boundaries, they must first learn to recognize the needs of others and the effect of ignoring another person’s needs and emotions. By explaining and examining the feelings provoked by their actions, may help them understand the importance of boundaries.

An easy way to explain boundaries and empathy is to ask the child how they would have felt if somebody did that to them. What kind of response would they have wanted if similar emotions were provoked in them?

By teaching the child empathy towards others, they develop an understanding of the importance of respecting boundaries. When they understand that their impulsive or emotional actions were the cause of their friend crying, they would learn to respect boundaries. The opposite is as powerful. By hugging a  crying friend, for example, may emphasize the powerful effect of empathy.

Children should also learn to set their boundaries and to practice self-control when others ignore their boundaries. It becomes possible when they can empathize with others. Then they will have the revelation that they should not only consider their situation and feelings but see it from the other person’s perspective. Learning this as a child will be valuable as an adult communicating with spouses, their children, employees, and employers.

Ways to Teach Self-Control

Teaching self-control to kids requires patience…and self-control. Here are a few simple and effective ways of how to teach children self-control.

  • Play games that require them to exercise self-control. It’s a fun way to start teaching toddlers.
  • Be consistent with rewards and consequences. It teaches the child to trust because the cause-and-effect is unswerving; you deliver as promised, and they are rewarded for their actions.
  • Be an example for the child to follow.
  • Create a peaceful atmosphere and deflate situations that may cause emotional outbursts.
  • Don’t lie to the child or others. Lying breaks trust. When trust is broken, there’s no motivation to practice self-control for a better reward.
  • Reward self-control. It enforces the concept that impulsive actions lead to negative consequences while self-control reaps better rewards.
  • Remind them regularly, especially young kids, what the rules are and what happens if they cross boundaries.
  • Talk to them about incidents. Ask them how they experienced the situation and how they felt. Discuss how they acted or reacted and asked them what could have been a better way to handle the situations.
  • Be aware of the difference between self-control and self-esteem. Promoting self-control will help your child deal with difficult situations because they are in control of their emotions and impulses. Building a child’s self-esteem can cause misconceptions if not based on fact. Self-esteem doesn’t lead to self-control, but a self-controlled child has self-esteem.
  • Implement good habits that strengthen self-control.
  • Encourage responsibility. Doing household chores is one way of teaching them to take responsibility for certain tasks.
  • Teach them to pause and think before they act or react. Use the idea of a stop button to visualize the concept.
  • Be trustworthy and apply the marshmallow test by promising delayed rewards that are greater than the current pleasure if they wait for it.


The younger you learn self-control, the easier it will be as an adult to control your emotions and impulses in any given situation. The brains of children younger than 3 ½ years old, however, don’t have the ability yet to practice self-control. Their neural pathways can be trained to create a stable atmosphere by practicing self-control as opposed to hasty emotional reactions.

Children learn self-control easier in an environment that rewards self-control consistently. The way adults act and react in the company of children will help (or hinder) them to learn self-control. If the adults in their lives stay calm in irrational situations, then the kids will grow up doing the same.

Empathy and boundaries play vital roles in self-control. If a child considers the feelings and needs of others, they’ll reconsider before overstepping boundaries to satisfy their needs and desires. They’ll empathize with the other person and objectively approach the situation.

Teach children to have a built-in stop button they activate by pausing and considering the options. The freeze game is a nice way to explain this concept. Every time something happens that triggers emotions, they should freeze, think about it before they unfreeze and act.

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