Self-control isn’t innate – it takes just a few seconds in the presence of a small child to see that. The good news is that self-regulation is something we can teach and help cultivate from a young age.
Some of the greatest developmental growth in the area of self-control happens between the ages of 3-7. By this age, our children are ready for us to guide them in controlling their impulses, managing big emotions, and being resilient.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is teaching them the skills and tools to self-regulate. Research has shown that children who develop strong self-regulation skills get better grades, have better relationships, earn higher salaries as adults, and have greater overall career success.
Self-control also predicts family stability, physical health and overall happiness. These are all aspects of our lives that require discipline, intentionality, and good habits – not rooted in self-esteem, but in self-control.
It’s not so much about encouraging a sense of achievement, but rather it’s healthy self-control that leads to good choices, which leads to good habits, which are the building blocks of healthy self-esteem. Here are 3 things you can start doing to develop your kids’ self-regulation skills.
1. Raise awareness
One of the best things we can do early on is simply raise awareness in our children that they have control over how they behave, what they say, and how they respond. Awareness is always the first step to change and growth. In our home each morning we recite the fruits of the spirit together – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We don’t do this just to memorize them, but rather we’re intentionally raising awareness of the values that we’re cultivating in our family.
So when I talk to my children about patience or gentleness or self-control, these aren’t foreign concepts to them. Its something they literally think about every morning, and whether consciously or subconsciously, they have these values at the top of their minds each day.
There was a night this week where my kids went to bed late and woke up cranky. My 5 year old was whining during breakfast and it was a great opportunity just bring some awareness around her ability to practice self-control.
I connected with her and explained to her – “You went to bed late last night, so it’s normal that you might be feeling a little tired and whiny. You may have to put some extra effort into having a good attitude today. But you can do it, and we’re going to have a great day. We’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight and tomorrow will be easier.”
And she sat there while she ate and she thought about it, and then she stopped whining and went to school and had a great day. And it wasn’t so much about her immediately changing her behavior, but I just wanted her to check in with her body and be aware of the fact that despite feeling cranky and tired, she could decide on the tone of her voice, whether she was going to complain or not, and know that feeling tired or cranky was temporary.
Awareness itself is a win! Eventually that awareness will pay off and we’ll start to see children’s self-regulating behavior come through.
2. Teach by example
Our kids are watching, and they’re seeing how we respond to things. They’re learning and modeling what they see. In parenting, more is caught than taught, right? So, if we’re lacking in self-control, it’s easy to see why they might be too – why they might have a hard time waiting patiently, or taming their tongue, or self-regulating after expressing big emotions.
Lately I’ve been more mindful of how I respond to their tantrums. I used to try to ignore my kids when they were mid-tantrum, and I think sometimes that may be the best approach. But recently, instead of dismissing their meltdown, I’ve been trying to simply respond with kindness and empathy.
You see, ignoring unwanted behavior can sometimes be effective, but it’s not really teaching our children how to regulate themselves. Earlier this week, my 3 year old didn’t want to go to school and was throwing a fit about it.
As much as her screaming and refusing to get buckled in the car drove me crazy, I took a deep breath, dug deep for a little patience and wisdom, and reminded myself that this was a teaching opportunity. It was a good time for me to model how I have self-control in my response to her, and also that her big feelings aren’t too much for me. She can scream and kick and cry, and I can stay calm and lovingly hold that space for her while she rides the wave of her anger.
And friends, I don’t always get this right! Sometimes I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with tantrums and I’m better off ignoring or walking away for a moment.
And at my worst, sometimes I do lose my cool because I’m human! It happens to the best of us. And when it does, the good news is that we can own it, apologize, repair, and move on. That’s an awesome teaching opportunity too!
3. Gently coach
Self-regulating isn’t easy – no doubt about it. Two minutes in rush-hours traffic and we see that many adults still lack self-control, amirite?! It’s going to take time for our children to effectively self-regulate. But we can help along the way by gently teaching tactics, reminding them to make wise choices, thinking what they’re going to say or do.
Think of this metaphor – imagine little islands in your child’s brain and a bridge connecting the islands. That bridge is the skill of self-control. We can help our children build the bridge of self-control – a literal pathway of regulated thoughts and behaviors
And every time we’re talking about self-regulation, every time we remind them about self-control, every time we give them a new tool, or model it for them, or teach them about patience, or have them stop, breathe and think before they act – each one of these parenting moments is putting a brick down on that bridge of self-regulation in their brains.
This takes time. No bridge is built with one brick. No bridge is built in one day.
But if we stay patient, consistent, and intentional in teaching self-regulation skills, over time those bricks will be laid. And eventually that bridge is going to be built and our child will be able to independently self-regulate.
One of my favorite tools to teach self-regulation is the stoplight method.
As parents, we all have that spidey-sense of knowing when our child is simmering, right? It’s when they’re on the path to the dysregulated “red-light” zone. The key is that we can catch them in that yellow zone and help them to self-regulate before they enter the red zone and lose executive function.
Especially with my youngest, I can see when she’s entering the yellow zone – her little body tenses up, her hands are clutched into fists, and her brow furrows. If I’m paying attention, I can gently coach her to check in with herself before she enters the red-light zone and becomes dysregulated. When she’s in the yellow, I step in and encourage her to take some time alone to take a few deep breaths, hit or scream into a pillow, jump on her bed, listen to calming music, etc.
And when she’s able to calm herself and return to a regulated green-light state, I really acknowledge, celebrate, and encourage her. I’ll say something like, “Wow, that was really hard to do. I know how frustrated you were and I’m so impressed that you were able to calm yourself down and step away for some deep breaths. Way to go!”
I know my children are motivated by my praise, so I try to be generous with my words of encouragement. Each time I encourage and coach them, I’m laying a brick on the bridge of self-control in their brains, so one day they won’t need my coaching anymore and will have the skills to truly self-regulate.
Do you have any other ways you like to teach your children self-regulation? Let me know in a comment, because this mama can use all the tips she can get!