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Teaching Kids Self-Control

7 Ways to Help Your Child Learn Self-Control

Have you ever witnessed a child who constantly dominates a conversation, or a child who grabs objects out in public, even after being told not to touch? What about a child who just doesn't seem to know how to wait his turn? Are these kids "bad," or are they kids who need help learning how to control their impulsive natures?

Why Kids Lack Self Control

Marcia G., a reader who is a teacher explains what nonspectrum impulsiveness looks like: "As soon as he gets to school they line up, and he just has to push somebody [who's] already in the line, just because he wants to stand in a certain spot or next to a certain friend, and that starts a whole problem with the kids that were already in line following directions."

Children like those I've described seem to be falling between the cracks these days. They're sent for testing that reveals no ADD, ADHD, Oppositional Defiance disorder, or any disorders on the spectrum.


So why can't these kids control themselves? Is there something else wrong? No.

This type of behavior is nonspectrum impulsive behavior. These kids all need to be taught that controlling yourself is something you do, not something a parent or a teacher does for you.

We tend to think children are more advanced than they are because they're walking, talking, and arguing with us, but small children's brains are not fully developed yet.

Learning about self-control happens through discovery and repetition, not through lectures and punishments. And that discovery and repetition happens slowly, throughout childhood.

Reader Michele B. says it best: "You can't teach a child how to control their impulses with a one-time lecture. You have to do one teachable moment, one situation at a time." Here are my seven tips for tackling that challenge.

1. Help Your Child Notice His Impulses

Impulses can feel like they've overtaken you, bypassing any rational thinking, causing you to disregard what you know you should do. In order to help your child learn about self-control, you need to break down that process for him, helping him to become aware of his impulses before they lead him to a bad choice.

2. Give Specific Strategies For Self-Control

Focusing on what your child did wrong is only half the equation. Make sure to tell your child what you want him to do instead. Try saying something like "You're not allowed to hog the video game, especially when you have a guest. Think of four things you can do while your friends play so you're able to share."

3. Don't Lecture

Children need time to process and integrate information. When you lecture, your child becomes overwhelmed with too much information and shuts down and stops listening.

4. Be Succinct

Use short statements and use instructive action. (To see how this works in real life, you can watch a video I created that illustrates how to handle a young child's impulsive behavior in public.)

5. Give Cues

Use reminder cues. For example, if your child won't stay on the deck and play as you asked, then use some painters tape and outline the boundaries you're asking your child to stay within. Sit outside with him, and if he leaves the deck, enforce the boundary by taking him inside for a count of 20, as I describe in the video.

6. Be Willing to Repeat Yourself

The key to curtailing impulsive behavior is to teach your child how to think before he acts, and that requires repetition of your lessons. (If you think your child really does know how to control himself and needs to be reminded more often than you'd like, then read my article on street safety. It illustrates how and why to use an action repeatedly to teach internal self-control.)

7. Give Do-Overs

Children learn from experience far more than they learn from words. The best way to increase their learning is with repetition. After you've completed any instructive corrections, make sure to give your child a chance to "try again." Doing this serves as a punctuation point on the lesson.

Finally, if you think your child really doesn't understand how to control himself, then look into my eseminar #9, The Art of Self-Control. Teaching a young child how to control himself now is the best insurance you can have that he will know how to apply internal self-control when it's really important — during the teen years.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and the Skills eclass. Visit to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs.

Image Source: Thinkstock
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