Last Updated: April 8, 2021
Self-control in children is a critical cognitive process for childhood development and overall wellbeing – up until they are adults.
The skill brings together a set of regulatory and disciplinary guidelines children need in order to stay calm, thoughtful, and productive.
This basically means they get to use their inner strength to think first and delay negative actions that are usually based on anger and impulses.
While the concept of self-control sounds nice to the ear, it is a hard skill to master even by grown-ups. It calls for persistent regulation of our otherwise volatile emotions, impulses, and behavior.
Take the following situations for example:
- We tend to quarrel over trivial matters
- We are always involved in useless fights
- We are irritable when stuck in traffic jams
- We are restless in a queue
- We indulge in impulsive behavior
- We are inconsistent with routines
- We leave everything to the last minute
The list is endless and God knows if any one of us has complete inhibitory control in place.
Much as self-control is tricky to master, it is worse when we choose to ignore it since we become a nuisance to ourselves and society.
The book of Proverbs 16:32 says,
Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.
What is self control anyway?
Self-control or inhibitory control describes the ability in us all to reflect on our thoughts, words, actions, emotions, and other responses and therefore take charge and remain calm.
Self-control is only one of the three branches of higher-level mental skills known as executive functioning skills. The other two are cognitive flexibility and working memory. The three skills help us to manage, recall, and control tasks, actions, behavior, and emotions.
These skills are not inborn but rather we learn them during childhood and continue to do so until we are adults. Our experiences in life and the guidance from parents, educators, and others in the community contribute to the development of executive functions in the brain.
Nurturing self-inhibition in children is done through managing motor control, impulse control, and emotional control:
In motor control, our brain is charged with the regulation of movements, which helps us to stay still. By doing so, we avoid disrupting events and occasions such as meetings and other occasions.
The impulse control faculty of the brain checks our vulnerability to sudden and unplanned desires and actions. When you pass by a shopping mall to purchase a cutlery set and end up with a cart full of pizza and other eats, you are a victim of impulse buying.
Our ability to control how we feel and respond when children go into crying fits describes the state of emotional control. While your response may involve cuddling and trying to calm down the child with positive emotions, another parent may feel frustrated and lash out with anger.
What are the indicators of poor self control in children?
Mastering self-control allows children to STOP and THINK before they do something they may regret, or miss out on something bigger. This gives meaning to the phrase – think before you act.
A popular experiment called the ‘Marshmallow test‘ is used to explain the state of self control and delay of gratification in children.
In this experiment, a child is asked to choose between two marshmallows and a single marshmallow – all placed before him on a table.
Usually, the child will opt for the two marshmallows only to be told he has to wait for the experimenter to return in about 15 minutes. In the event that the child cannot wait for the return of the experimenter, he can signal him to return early, but instead of the two marshmallows, he will only get one.
On the other hand, if the child has the willpower to hold on for the stipulated 15 minutes, he will have exhibited a strong sense of self control.
Of course, some experts argue that affluence rather than willpower is the reason behind the delay in gratification.
Below are only a few daily experiences and moments that can explain regulatory skills in children:
- Stays calm as she waits in a queue
- Does not talk back to parents out of anger
- Is patient with a naughty and young sibling
- Raises her hand in class before answering a question
- Waits for her turn to speak in a conversation
- Is not distracted when doing an assignment
- Allows siblings to have a go at a computer game
- Is mindful of how others feel
- Reads instructions before answering an assignment
- Does not rush to grab food before everyone is sited at the dinner table
What you can do to improve self inhibition in children
While it is true the very young children lack the willpower to control how they feel, older children starting at 3 are old enough to begin taking charge of self-inhibition.
The following are simple strategies that parents, caregivers, and the community can use to create a strong sense of self-consciousness, and therefore, inhibition in children:
- Parents should model self-discipline upon which children can learn and understand. A calm and patient parent is better placed to instill similar discipline than one who is emotional and erratic.
- Make a habit to discuss the virtues and consequences of failure to control external desires. Children will not know what is wrong until told so.
- Keep temptations away by ensuring all the goodies that children crave are out of sight until needed. These include toys, TV remotes, smartphones, marshmallows, etc.
- Provide scaffoldings and other structures to help guide children.
- Implement and adhere to routines and guidelines about what to and not to at different times of the day, and days of the week.
- Give praise and reward positive self-control. For example, you can promise extra screentime in the event your child completes homework on time or wakes up at the right time in the morning. Of course, the rewards should stop when the child masters the required skill sets.
- Allow children to play self-control-related games that enhance positive regulatory behavior. Games such as Freeze Dance, Red Light, Green Light, Hide and Seek, Mirror Mirror, Dancing, Role Play, etc.
Be assertive and supportive of failures in the road towards effective self control. Some children will master the skills fast enough while others will falter along the way. This is only normal and positive results will happen with time and persistence.