8 Steps to Help Your Child Develop Self-Control

Photographer:Jenna Young Photography

By Dr. Laura Markham

“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power…It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it?” 
-Walter Mischel 

We can think of self-discipline as the ability to manage ourselves to reach our goals. In Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiments, he tested how long a child can resist eating a treat, if it means she will then get two treats that she really wants. In other words, does the child have the self-discipline to control her impulses to meet her goal? 

(And yes, these were kids who actually WANTED the second treat, and trusted the interviewer to give it to them. If you have questions about whether we can draw valid conclusions from this experiment, you’ll want to start with our post: Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?) 

The part that’s interesting about the marshmallow experiment to me is that IF a four year old (who wanted a second treat and trusted the experimenter) could control themselves to not eat the treat, they grew into happier adults. 

I think that’s because these children could manage their impulses to meet their goals.

Our ability to manage our emotions and impulses is essential if we want to meet our goals, from getting along on the playground to holding a job.

And adults who repeatedly fail to realise their aspirations in life are certainly less happy. 

To clarify this issue, we might want to think of this trait as “emotional regulation” rather than “self-discipline.” (Mischel himself said that this experiment — and all “self-control” — is being able to manage “hot” emotions well enough to resist the temptations that otherwise derail us from reaching our goals.) 

The good news is that there are ways for parents to help their children build brains that are better at self-regulation (i.e., self-control.) 

Let’s look at the steps. 

1. The foundation of self-control is trust 

Parents who are responsive to children’s needs foster trust. When the hungry infant wakes up crying and the parent picks him up and feeds him, he learns to trust that food will come. Eventually, this child will trust that he will indeed get the treat he’s been promised eventually, so he doesn’t have to eat it this minute. And he’ll be able to soothe his own impatience and worry to manage himself in stressful situations. Parents help their children reach this relatively mature stage faster every time they soothe anxiety and foster a feeling of safety and acceptance. 

Not surprisingly, when the Marshmallow test is manipulated so that the child has more trust in the experimenter, the child is able to wait longer to eat the marshmallow. When the child has less trust in the experimenter, he eats the marshmallow sooner. Wouldn’t you? 

2. Children learn emotional regulation from our modelling 

Parents who de-escalate drama and soothe their child’s upset help the child build a brain that calms down more easily.

Every time a child is soothed, her brain strengthens the neural pathways to soothe and regulate emotions, which will eventually allow her to soothe herself.

By contrast, when parents can’t manage their own emotions and react angrily, or take their child’s challenging behaviour personally, the child gets a clear message that life is full of emergencies and she needs to stay mobilised for protection and attack. She builds a vigilant neural system that easily escalates and has a harder time calming down, which makes it difficult for him to control her emotions and behaviour. 

So one of the most important things you can do to help your child learn self-control is to regulate your own emotions, so you can stay calm and patient with your child. 

3. The self-control capacity of the brain increases with practice 

Toddlers don’t have the ability to resist a treat left available to them, while 30% of four-year-olds and virtually all adults do. What makes the difference? The prefrontal cortex, which is barely developed in a two year old and reaches maturity around the age of 25. But there’s a wide variation in how fast the prefrontal cortex develops and how well it works at every age. How do you strengthen the prefrontal cortex? Practice! 

Some people have theorised that children who are “smarter” are the ones who are able to wait. But “smartness” is not static, and it is not just innate ability. It depends on being able to control your impulses, which we know is strengthened every time the child CHOOSES to do so. Any repeated action strengthens the brain. Again: Practice! 

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