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Self-Control

What is self-control?

Self-control includes being in control of behaviors, feelings, and desires, instead of acting on impulse. A child with self-control takes time to think of choices and possible results, and then makes the best choice.

Why is it important?

Impulsive, out-of-control behavior such as running into a busy street can place your child in danger. Raging tantrums or crying jags can affect a child's ability to make friends. Children or teens that cannot control their emotions may use substances, run away, or behave in other ways that are not safe.

How can I help my child develop self-control?

When you discipline your child, you are helping them learn self-control. Also, be aware that you are a model for your child. The way that you deal with frustration and self-control are more important than what you say. Here are other suggestions for you to try.

Toddlers and Pre-school Children:

Children under the age of two become frustrated easily. They are just starting to learn the difference between what they want to do and what they are able to do. Helping your child learn to follow limits and controlling your own feelings will be helpful. Try distracting a toddler who becomes upset. Distraction can help adults cope too!

When your child is two or older, teach them how to take time to calm themselves when upset by using brief "time-outs." Time-outs work best when:

  • You put the child in time-out before his behavior is at its worst
  • A time out is in a specific, quiet space (such as a chair, room, or corner)
  • They are brief (1 minute for each year of age, for example, 2 minutes for a 2 year old)
  • They are followed by a brief recap of why a time-out was needed and how to deal with it the next time.

Be sure to praise children when they are able to control themselves again after the time-out.

Teach healthy ways to calm down. Every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. Here are some ideas for other activities your child can do when they start to get upset.

  • Physical: run, swim, ride a bike, dance, pound play dough, do some jumping jacks
  • Verbal: talk to a friend, tell jokes, cry, sing
  • Visual: imagine a "happy place," watch funny videos, or read a comic book
  • Creative: write, draw, play music, build something
  • Self comforting activities: hug a stuffed animal, take a bubble bath, lie down

Elementary School Children:

Build on the foundation learned earlier by teaching your child to think about tough situations ahead of time and how they want to behave. Have your child give the pros and cons of acting a certain way. For example, if someone makes fun of him or her at recess, ask how the child would handle it. Try to handle it themselves? Involve a teacher? Get you or another parent to help? What would give the best results?

It can be helpful to continue with time-outs as children get older. Teach your child that taking a time-out can help them calm down It helps to:

  • Take a few deep breaths
  • Distract themselves by counting backwards
  • Exercise
  • Read or engage in fun activities

Explain It does not help to keep fuming about the person who upset them or the situation.

Middle School Children and Teens:

Time-outs can still be very helpful for both you and your child during the pre-teen and teen years. After you both have calmed down, make sure that you come back together and talk about the conflict. Older children and teens should be able to understand another person's view of things. This helps them learn problem solving.

Teens face more areas where a loss of self-control can have serious consequences, such as driving or deciding whether to use alcohol or drugs. It helps to praise and reward your child with privileges when they show good self-control. Privileges include such things as cell phones, driving, telephone time, Internet access, and TV time. Take away privileges when they show a lack of self-control.

When should I seek professional help?

If your child engages in out-of-control behaviors that disrupt their daily lives, or that cause you serious concern, consult with a professional. They can help you figure out which behaviors are normal and which behaviors may need treatment.

Your healthcare provider can help sort out whether you are dealing with a normal developmental problem or something more serious. They can also help refer you to other specialists (such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers) who work with children and teens with behavioral and emotional problems.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-03-14
Last reviewed: 2012-03-12
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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