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Children and Self-control: A Survival Guide for Parents

Science has an explanation for your child’s lack of self-control. So no, your child isn’t trying to drive you crazy. Your child is just, well, being a child.

9 min read

Tips to help parents navigate the challenges of fostering self-control in children.


It can be frustrating when your kids seem to always act on impulse. The tantrums at the supermarket, shoving at the playground, and the unwanted “sugar rushes” after playdates—all these can make any parent second-guess themselves...and their children.


Fortunately, science has an explanation for your child’s lack of self-control. The part of the brain that manages emotions and impulses doesn’t develop well until children hit three years old. So no, your child isn’t trying to drive you crazy. Your child is just, well, being a child.


But that doesn’t mean you should just let your little firecracker get away with turning the grocery store upside down at every visit. Teaching your child impulse control is necessary to pave the way for success in the future. In fact, according to neuroscience researchers Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, who co-authored Welcome To Your Child’s Brain, said “impulse control is twice more important than intelligence when it comes to predicting academic achievement.” Impulse control helps your child to stay goal-oriented, manage his/her emotions, and make better choices, thus allowing for him/her to be the exceptional child you are raising them to be.


How to teach kids self-control


In an article written by Michelle Anthony, PHD entitled “Why Impulse Control Is Harder Than Ever,” Anthony said there are three factors that come into play when it comes to a child’s impulsivity profile: temperament, executive functioning skills (his/her ability to think, plan, and problem-solve), and development stage. While temperament is inherent and not something you can change, creating rules and activities that cater to his/her executive functioning skills at the right development stage is key to teaching your child self-control.


Toddlers (Ages 1-3)


It’s hard being a toddler: they have all these emotions but don’t know what to do with them! Imagine being told you have to take a nap when you’re not even tired, or that you have to share your toys with someone else!


To teach a toddler self-control, try these methods:


  • Help your child to label his/her emotions. Say things like, “I know you’re mad because you don’t like the car seat,” or “I understand you’re upset that the ball won’t go into the basket.” Naming emotions will make it easier for your little one to identify feelings in the future, making it easier for him/her to find solutions in managing them.
  • Keep reminding your child about rules and instructions. Toddlerhood is also the age when your child will be able to follow simple rules and instructions, like, “It’s not right to push people” or, “Please return your toy.” Verbally repeating certain rules and instructions will help your child carry these out even when you’re not around.
  • Take your child to a time-in. When kids reach the age of two or three, they’ll want to test boundaries like throwing tantrums and see if they can get away with it. When this happens, take your little one to a time-in—bring them to a space where you can be alone with your child, to help him/her relax and calm him/herself down. Being with your little one, instead of letting them alone gives him/her the assurance that you understand the emotions he/she is dealing with.
  • Take note of your child’s temperament. If your little one is an introvert, don’t expect him/her to mingle with other tots at a birthday party right away. Some toddlers have a hard time transitioningto certain situations, so it’s best to plan around how yours responds to certain triggers. Doing so will result in your child having more mental energy to cope with different situations.


Preschoolers (Ages 4-5)

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Overwhelming emotions are still present at this age, but your preschooler now has the power of language to express his/herself.

  • Reinforce good behaviour. By now, your child knows what kind of behavior you expect from him/her. Reinforce this by explaining why such behaviour is important. Don’t just say “because I said so!” Instead, take the time to explain “we’re going to the supermarket. You can look at things, but don’t touch. You might drop things and disturb other shoppers.” Reiterate this before entering the supermarket: “Remember, just look.”
  • Use story time as an opportunity to put his executive functional skills at work. Pick stories that contain character struggles and valuable life lessons. Remember, children are sponges: they soak these lessons in, and pull them out when confronted with a similar situation in life.
  • Even at this stage, time-ins still work when a tantrum occurs. As your child is now able to communicate their feelings better, it is easier to have him/her sit down to talk about what he/she was feeling before the outburst.
  • Praise your child for positive efforts to manage his/her emotions. By simply saying things like, “I know it wasn’t easy for you to wait in line with me at the bank, but you did, and I’m so proud of you!” teaches your child what kind behaviour is good and acceptable. By paying attention to this positive behaviour, the more self-control is reinforced in your child.
  • Keep repeating rules and instructions. At this stage, you might also find yourself sounding like a broken record, having to repeat instructions and rules over and over again. Keep at it! Research has shown that the brain changes based on experiences that are repeated.


Primary Schoolers (Ages 6-7)

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Your child can now better understand the consequences of his/her behavior. Your child now knows what can happen if he/she doesn’t obey a stop sign, and that hitting other kids at the playground leads to a trip to the principal’s office.


  • Set goals together. Now is the best time to emphasize goal-setting for your child. Self-control also means choosing to give up something we want for something else, and this mostly happens when the child is trying to achieve a certain goal. This could be as simple as giving up a brownie today for a bigger slice of cake tomorrow.
  • Teach your child to always think before he/she acts. This applies to social situations. Use the stop sign as a mental activity: when your child feels the urge to react, tell him/her to imagine a stop sign in his/her head. Tell your child to stop and think about how he/she should react to the situation.
  • Expose your child to group dynamics. “Birds of the same feather, flock together.” Remember the expression? A study published in Psychological Science has shown that a child’s individual ability to delay gratification is only one piece of the puzzle. Context and environmental factors—most notably, their peers—also play key roles. When kids see other kids practicing self-control, they’ll most likely do the same. If you’re part of a parent group, consider having a chat about the different ways you can encourage your children to practice self-control together.


Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that as parents, we must lead by example. Regardless of temperament, executive functioning skills, or development stage, children take their cues from the most important people in their lives: their parents. Learning to manage our own feelings, and responding to them—not reacting—may just be the best way to help our children develop self-control.