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Five Steps Toward Cultivating Self-Control in Children

July 2, 2011
Children and Teens / Mental Health
“Staff Tips and Strategies” and a drawing of a family in green

Deborah Goldstein, LCSW-C, Clinical Director

In the world of a young child, frustration may come from many daily situations. Waiting your turn, feeling uncertainty, or choosing among too many options are a few of the challenges that can cause a pre-schooler to tantrum, hurt others or act out in other ways. However, adults caring for children may begin teaching them to regulate their own emotions, thoughts and behavior. Here are five steps toward helping children achieve this essential part of social and emotional development.

  • Set limits. Clear limits with simple explanations let children know what is expected of them. Keep these rules and limits age-appropriate and consistent. For example, “I see you want to play with that toy Jimmy has. Ask him nicely if you can play with it next.” Give a child opportunities to make choices, but keep it limited. For instance “Would you like to wear your white shirt or your blue shirt today?”
  • Encourage imaginative play. Children today often focus their play on material toys that require very little imagination. However, make-believe play helps children develop better skills for self-regulation. Making up scenarios and characters requires children to think through how the story should go using “private speech” – in essence talking to themselves internally about how the story should evolve. Private speech is an important tool in developing the awareness needed for self-control.
  • Set structure. Children love ritual and feel secure with predictable patterns throughout the day. For example, begin each morning with free play followed by a group activity, then outdoor play before lunch and quiet time. Knowing what kind of activity is coming will help ready them for these transitions.
  • Set an example by staying calm. Children mimic the behavior they see in adults, so be sure you show calm and control. Use appropriate language, don’t hit, and tell children if you are starting to become angry. Your demeanor will strengthen the trust between you and the child, encouraging the child to feel safe and comfortable.
  • Talk things over together. Talking situations through with the child also demonstrates how to solve problems. In a quiet moment, reflect back on a time when the child lost control. Try words like “I could see you were unhappy. Let’s think of how we can change things next time, so it is easier for you to take turns.”

Self-regulation skills begin forming as early as infancy, when a baby discovers that her distress produces a caring response from adults. By the pre-school years, planning the day’s activities, getting along with others and adapting to changes present plenty of opportunities to start teaching children the self-control they will benefit from throughout their lives.