The idea of teaching “self-control” can be misleading because it implies self-control is one skill. In reality self-control is a combination of controlling the brian’s thoughts, regulating our emotions, and finally, controlling our actions. As with most things, some kids are just naturally better at regulating themselves, but self-regulation can also be trained.
Highlighting the end goal
When children self-regulate, most of the time, it comes down to controlling impulses now in pursuit of a longer term goal. The longer term goal is usually related to developing empathy, social relationships, or simply learning something new. Children need their parents’ help to picture the long term goal, and why it’s worth self-regulating over.
Take the situation where your child does not want to share their toys with their friend. Parents need to explain that sharing and taking turns is what good friends do, and their friend will want to continue being friends if they share.
Scaffold regulation strategies
Studies have revealed that children with a variety of regulation strategies outperformed children who solely relied on sheer willpower in tests of self-regulation. This is why after explaining the long term goal, parents should use natural situations to teach regulation strategies. For example:
- Waiting: if someone else is using a toy your child wants, teach them to wait, and distract themselves in creative ways (playing a game, singing, playing with a different toy).
- Taking turns: take turns with siblings by using a timer; a timer is a concrete representation of an abstract concept, reassuring your children that their turn will come.
- Breathing techniques: breathing is an incredibly powerful tool to calm our sympathetic nervous system. Try asking your child to pretend they’re blowing a large bubble, using slow, steady, and deep breathing.
- Unleash emotions: when emotions are very tense, it may be better for your child to release their emotions; teach them to release their emotions in a way that does not impact others.
Play games that involve self-regulation
Researchers Tominey and McClelland conducted a study on use of self-regulation games on self-regulation abilities. They had the children play a modified game of Red Light, Green Light involving fantasy elements twice a week for 8 weeks. They found that the children who played the game showed improvements in not only impulse control, but also cognitive adaptability, and working memory (relative to the control group).