If you were sitting in a room with a 5 layer chocolate cake and told not to touch it, could you resist the temptation? Would you sniff it? Maybe even skim some of the icing off with your finger? According to Laura Markham Ph.D. of Psychology Today1, "Only 30% of 4 year olds can manage their emotions, anxiety and impulses to resist temptation." Why should that matter? How you deal with self-control when you are four will determine whether or not the adult you can resist the urge to taste that chocolate cake.
Self-control is also known as self-restraint, or "the ability to regulate one's thoughts and behavior in the face of temptation and impulses," according Wikipedia2. Self-control mastered in childhood prevents problems arising in adulthood.
Why it's difficult to learn self-control
In today's instant-gratification society, anything you need is at the touch of a finger. You switch on the television with a remote. You don't have to wait for your favorite program, you stream it. You buy passes to by-pass the long lines at amusement parks. Microwaves heat your food up instantly, and when your out and hungry, you grab some fast food. Fast, convenient and no waiting, but at what cost?
Kids enter a world where waiting is minimal and tempers in these volatile times run high. People scream at each other on television, from their cars- and even in public. They rage at their governments by destroying other people's property. Kids grasp concepts by example and society provides a poor one. However, scolding your child for their lack of self-control will do no one any favors, as this necessary soft skill needs to be learned.
Why learning self-control is essential for kids
Kids need to start learning self-control when they are young. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part used to regulate self-control3, develops slowly in children and they, in turn, have the ability to take in this soft skill in stages in accordance to their growth.
A toddler, though unable to understand complex issues to them like waiting for cookies to finish baking in an oven, can be distracted, setting a foundation for building self-distraction as a coping mechanism for self-control. However, a five year old can sit in a time out to calm down and know why they are in that time out, and a teen can be taught to think twice about a reaction if the consequences mean losing that Friday night at a friend's house.4
How to help your kids learn self-control
1. Be a Good Role Model
You are the best model for your child to learn self-control. They will take their cues from how you act and react to situations. Do you lose your temper in the car and shout at other drivers? Keep calm and your child will learn to do the same.
2. Develop Trust Bonds
In order for kids to learn self-control, they need to know you have their back. If they already know they have dinner at home at 6, they will feel less compelled to grab that candy at 5:30. They trust you will feed them at 6, and having that sense of trust is essential in developing self-control. Provide a safe, warm, loving environment in which they can learn and thrive.
3. Teach Through Games
Younger kids learn self-control techniques best through play5. Games like Red-Light Green-Light or musical chairs teach them that have to control themselves. They have to stop themselves from grabbing that chair while the music is still going, or stop and freeze when they hear that "red-light" command. They are playing yet learning vital impulse control at the same time.
4. Use Delayed Gratification
Waiting is essential for self-control. Bake with your kids. With a timer to set- they have anticipation. The cake/cookies/brownies will be done by X amount of time. This helps them practice delayed gratification. You can use this too by not buying them something they badly want and tell them they must wait for their birthday or Christmas.
5. Tell Them About Consequences for Actions
Teaching kids they have consequences for their actions is essential in self-control. Instead of scolding them for their bad behavior, tell them you are taking away their electronics/favorite toy/ for X amount of time because of the behavior. Yelling does no one favors and only escalates the situation, but losing television privileges for a week will make them think twice next time.
6. Use Meditation
Recently, some schools have adopted the practice of using meditation to help with lack of behavior issues, instead of suspension and detention and their successes are astounding6. Much like a time-out, but focused, meditation helps children to master self control, gain inner calmness, and alleviate anxiety. Regular meditation also teaches the practitioner not to react impulsively to situations.
You can start your kids mediating- a minute a day to begin with. There are audios available for mindful meditation- guided with a voice to help kids think about their life, or just use soft music or silence. Have them focus on their breath- breathing in and out. And set a timer. Sometimes using an object to direct their focus on helps as well, like a candle or a rock.
Save your larynx, and stop yelling at the kids for their lack of self-control. Instead teach them this essential soft skill, by incorporating lessons of impulse control, delayed gratification, consequences into your daily life. Be a good role model and develop a trust bond and begin meditating. It will make your life easier and less stressful and help build a stronger foundation for your kids and their future- and maybe even help them resist the temptation to eat that chocolate cake!
ReferencesPsychology Today: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Develop Self Control Wikipedia: Self Control Standford.edu: Self Control and The Developing Brain KidsHealth.org : Teaching Your Child Self-Control Parentingscience.org: Teaching Self Control  Newsweek.com: The Movement of Meditation Replacing Detention in Schools