Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control

The breathtaking joys of parenthood are inextricably linked to its immense responsibilities. When these are not met, the joys are diminished for all concerned—often for generations to follow.

Of the responsibilities parents tacitly accept when they bring a child into the world, perhaps the most important is teaching how to regulate thoughts, emotions and behavior. Children who reach adolescence without developing this ability are more likely to fail academically, exhibit aggressive behavior, abuse substances, engage in high-risk sexual behavior and—as a result of any or all of these—generally experience negative life events. Unfortunately, many parents who struggle in this area themselves are ill-equipped to pass these skills down. Yet some researchers will go so far as to suggest that most if not all major problems that plague individuals of all ages in our society, including a number of health problems and mental issues, can be traced in some way to an inability to appropriately control aspects of the self.

Almost everything the self is or does is tied in some way to self-regulation.”

Roy F.Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, Handbook of Self-Regulation (2004)

While this crucial skill is often legitimately referred to simply as self-control, a broader term, self-regulation, unites overlapping ideas related to and in some ways inseparable from goal attainment. When a discrepancy arises between our current state and our desired state, we’re motivated to alter our thoughts, emotions or behaviors. The term self-control describes the conscious effort to change behavior and thus reduce this discrepancy, while self-regulation encompasses this as well as more automatic processes—and both are important in human development.

For the purposes of this article it could be said that self-regulation includes conscious, purposeful decisions to direct emotional responses, attention or behavior by replacing an unconscious, automatic action with one that requires thought and effort, such as in delaying gratification or controlling anger, but this does not tell the whole story. And while the whole story may not be crucial for parents to understand in detail, for context it does help to grasp some basics about how automatic as well as conscious processes of self-regulation work in adults. Rather than considering these concepts only as something to instill in the next generation, parents must consider how self-regulation skills apply to their parenting approach even as they teach them to their children.

Conscious Regulation Versus Automatic

In the 1990s, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues noticed that the research literature on the more conscious and intentional processes of self-regulation seemed to point to a “strength model” of self-control. Likening the process to a muscle that gets tired, the researchers reported that self-regulation seemed to be a limited (though renewable) resource that could be depleted: a conscious act of self-control caused diminished performance in an immediately subsequent test of self-control. But the muscle analogy did not break down there: “Just as exercise can make muscles stronger,” they wrote, “there are signs that regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength.” And there was still more good news. In the same way that depleted athletes can gather all their resources for one final push, “if the stakes are high enough,” people with depleted reserves of self-control are also capable of gathering their resources to meet a further demand before requiring time for renewal. As a side benefit, “targeted efforts to control behavior in one area, such as spending money or exercise, lead to improvements in unrelated areas, such as studying or household chores.”

Still, if exerting our self-control muscles makes such heavy demands on our resources, how can we be expected to cope effectively with the many daily tasks that require some form of self-regulation? Fortunately, not all of those tasks require effortful self-control. Automatic self-regulation is the control of thought, emotion or behavior without conscious, purposeful intent. It’s possible to convert self-control from conscious to automatic, and to carry out the automatic response rapidly, even under stress.

The most obvious influence on the conversion from effortful control to an automatic response is frequency. When we always respond to a particular situation with a certain behavior without thinking about it, that behavior can be said to be automatic. An example might be nail-biting as an unthinking reaction to anxiety. If it happens often, we may catch ourselves ruining our nails and thereby become aware of the need to react to anxiety in a more positive way. And if we succeed at repeated efforts to replace the nail-biting with a different response, the new behavior will eventually become as automatic as the old one.

But there’s another way to automate self-regulation. In an oft-cited study on the topic, German researchers Peter M. Gollwitzer and Veronika Brandstätter demonstrated that planning a certain response to a situational cue created strong mental links between the cue and the desired behavior. They called these planned responses “implementation intentions,” distinguishing them from goal intentions. For instance, an admirable goal intention might be “I intend to lose weight”; yet, even if this goal is backed up by a great degree of willpower and dietary knowledge, achieving it is not so simple. However, when implementation intentions are rehearsed in anticipation of stressful or distracting situations, goal intentions are strengthened. In the early stages, the idea is to link the desired action to a specific trigger. For instance, our dieter would designate a specific if-then intention before a potentially tempting situation—say, going out to a restaurant with friends. She might commit to a specific course of action: “When they bring the dessert menu, I’ll order peppermint tea.” If this contingency is mentally rehearsed, an effective association can be created between the situational cue (the appearance of the dessert menu) and the desired behavior, making it easier to perform in the actual event even when distracted or pressured.

We may learn to regulate our own emotions and behavior with these concepts in mind, but how can we give our children the conscious as well as automatic self-regulation skills they need for optimal well-being?

Infancy: Where Self-Regulation Begins

The term self-regulation may have a decidedly independent ring, but the capacity springs from utter dependence. It is made possible by emotional bonding during early infancy, stemming from responsive interactions between infants and caregivers. Sensory stimulators such as touch are known to contribute to attachment and emotional self-regulation. The resulting emotional bond directly influences the neuronal pathways instrumental in self-regulation. It is important to recognize that emotions are not only regulated but regulatory. They integrate and organize our mental activity, appraising and making meaning of the stimuli that come in for processing. When appropriately regulated, they equip us to meet the social demands of our world; they force us to notice what motivates those around us—as well as ourselves—and to put that in context. Emotions connect multiple domains within the mind, but they also allow for connections between minds, making social relationships possible.

Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel has written extensively about the development of emotional regulation in children, often pointing out the significance of primary emotions to social relationships. Primary emotions are the brain’s initial appraisal of whether an experience is “good” or “bad,” and while these appraisals may not always be conscious, they are constantly occurring. As we pick up cues to the emotional states of others and respond, we become linked in what Siegel refers to as emotional resonance. “In this resonating connection,” he explains, “two people mutually influence the internal state of the other. This attunement, this connecting resonance, enables us to feel joined.” This becomes the basis for empathy, and it is fundamental to other processes important to self-regulation.

Although this kind of connecting between parents and children is important throughout the lifespan, Siegel uses the example of a baby with a wet diaper to describe the ideal in the infancy stage. First the bad feeling of the wet diaper prompts the infant’s crying. The parent responds by discovering the source of distress and resolving it. As a result the baby is aware of having been altered by the interaction with the parent and feels a sense of connected well-being. In contrast, when the parent fails to offer the appropriate response, the discomfort continues and the infant remains in a state of distress and isolation. Siegel acknowledges that no parent can achieve the ideal in every circumstance. Some children are more difficult to soothe than others, and a baby’s signals can be unclear at times. But frequent successful connections in the infant-caregiver relationship are necessary to lay the groundwork for emotional and, later, other forms of self-regulation.

Developmental psychologist Susan Calkins has also written about the connection between early attachment and emotional self-regulation. She explains that as securely attached infants develop physically, they begin to use their motor capabilities to help regulate their emotional responses. Between three and six months of age they gain the motor skills required to begin taking certain conscious actions. Progressing from simple self-soothing strategies such as sucking or looking away, they may now begin to distract themselves from a stimulus that arouses negative feelings by actively directing their attention toward a more positive or neutral object. As their motor control increases over the next year or so, they gradually become skilled at not only self-soothing but also exploring, retreating and redirecting, and they learn to seek help from caregivers to regulate their emotions.

During the first three years a foundation is laid for a child’s later emotional, social, and cognitive regulation and for the motivation to regulate herself in these areas.” 

Martha B. Bronson, Self Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture (2000)

As they progress through toddlerhood, children become increasingly intrigued by their ability to exert control over aspects of their environment, and parents will hear (incessantly), “I do it myself!” While it is important for children to do as much as possible to explore and master their environment at this stage, the calm support and guidance of caregivers in demonstrating and reinforcing appropriate boundaries is important. If all goes well, by the end of toddlerhood they should be able to respond to and comply with parental directives, and behavioral self-control begins to emerge as a result. By this time a child can also regulate the expression of emotions more adroitly.

Calkins explains that early self-comforting, distraction and help-seeking abilities are critical to the self-regulation skills that follow. “Failure to acquire these skills may lead to difficulties in areas such as social competence and school adjustment,” she says, also noting that “the lack of adequate development of control over emotion (as well as, in some instances, overcontrol of emotion) may be a precursor to the development of psychopathology.”

While neural and physiological factors do play into the development of appropriate emotional and behavioral control, the consistent message that emerges from the large body of research on self-regulation confirms that warm support and guidance from parents and other attachment figures is fundamental. But parents and caregivers must keep in mind that “appropriate” self-control varies with age. Younger children do not distinguish between emotions, thoughts and actions as effectively as older children, and infants cannot do so at all. A parent who screams at an infant to stop crying demands the impossible and will not only fail to achieve the desired result but will also undermine the infant’s future ability to self-regulate.

Preschool Years

As children move beyond the focus on exploration and mastery that characterizes the toddler years, they learn conscious strategies to regulate emotion and behavior. Predictably, parents of children who use such strategies tend to exhibit competent self-regulation skills themselves. Compared to other parents, they show more patience and positive guiding behaviors, such as helping children learn to distract themselves in frustrating situations or encouraging them to divert their attention away from a forbidden object. Distraction is an important self-regulatory strategy at this stage, but toddlers do not tend to use it spontaneously. Rather, this and other self-regulatory strategies seem to be learned as a result of positive encouragement from parents. Conversely, research also indicates that parents who use more negatively directive and controlling styles do not foster constructive strategies in their children.

The benefit for toddlers who are able to intentionally refocus their attention early in life is that they are more likely to exercise self-control as they grow, and that this skill remains relatively stable throughout early childhood. Although this stability has led to speculation that self-control may be related to temperament, links between parenting styles and the development of self-control have been well documented, and common sense suggests that parenting styles are also likely to remain fairly stable over time. Researchers have therefore concluded that effortful control can be fostered, even in the face of genetic or temperamental factors.

Developing conscious self-control in preschoolers requires understanding that their ability to restrain their emotions or behaviors may be hampered if they are mentally processing multiple demands. Referring back to Baumeister’s “strength model” of self-control, it is easy to understand that a preschooler’s inhibitory skills may take time to become automatic, but it is also true that the brain’s frontal lobe, long known to facilitate self-monitoring and behavioral inhibition, is still fairly immature in children this young.

One of the key developmental strides children make during this period includes an increasing motivation to focus on mastering specific goals. While younger children may be content with reaching any semblance of the goal (being more interested in the process), in later stages they develop concrete standards of self-appraisal. As they begin to extract pleasure from their successes and disappointment from their failures, they develop motivation for persistence and mastery. However, this motivation can be reduced or eliminated if the child feels controlled in the task. For example, too much direction in a school project can reduce children’s motivation to accomplish the task on their own.

This is an interesting concept in the development of self-regulation in children: there is a clear difference between parents who are controlling and parents who are in control. Controlling parents administer a child’s movements and goals in an “autonomy-destructive” way that often includes psychological pressure such as guilt-inducement and love withdrawal. Such parenting does not produce self-controlled children. On the other hand, parents who are in control know how to use control in an “autonomy-supportive” way. They establish and consistently apply clear standards and boundaries while allowing room for personal expression. This approach fosters a child’s internalization of the standards and boundaries and leads to the child accepting them as self-imposed. Without this internalization of behavioral standards there is no self-regulation, and external efforts to force compliance are likely to foster little but anxiety, frustration and hostility in the child.

Naturally the level of personal expression allowed for children needs to be age-appropriate. Preschoolers, for instance, can easily be allowed to choose between two or three healthy snacks, or to decide what color shirt to wear or which bedtime story to have read. However, he or she would not be making decisions that affect values and boundaries (such as setting bedtimes, dietary standards or standards of dress).

Developmental psychologists consistently find that parenting style—the basic approach parents use across various situations—is more important than technique in successfully fostering self-regulation in preschoolers. Just as for infants and toddlers, the most effective parenting style is characterized by warmth, respect, openness and support for autonomy within secure boundaries and limitations.

Middle Childhood

Middle childhood is a particularly important stage in self-regulation. While the human brain remains plastic into adulthood, the roots of self-regulation run deep, and its capacities are thought to be fairly well entrenched by the time this period ends, although age-related changes still occur into preadolescence. During the school years children participate in more activities outside the home, and social and peer relationships have a more direct effect on the development of self-regulation than in earlier years. Having learned during the preschool years that emotions can be triggered by their own thoughts or through the words and actions of others, and armed with a greater ability for abstract thinking, children are now ready to take the next step toward developing mature self-regulation strategies. If parents teach them how to consciously reappraise situations that evoke negative emotions, or to use cognitive techniques for controlling their behavior, then by about the age of 10 children will begin to use these strategies more regularly on their own.

During this period a toolbox of other self-regulation strategies and skills is also necessary. These include capacities for self-monitoring and self-presentation. But children must first believe that they are capable of making personal changes when the need arises. They must also learn to assign responsibility and blame in a realistic way. This is particularly important, because during the school years, other people’s perceptions begin to intrude on the child’s self-view, and much of a child’s effort at self-regulation may be focused on belonging and on creating a social identity. Parents will certainly want to monitor children’s social sphere, but the need for belonging is in itself not a threat to self-regulation. Rather, it can be a strengthening force as children learn to inhibit selfish impulses to benefit others or conform to social rules. In fact, socially oriented people have been found to show more self-regulatory ability than those less social. From their study on this topic, researchers Kathleen D. Vohs and Natalie J. Ciarocco concluded that “securing and maintaining belongingness are motivating forces in self-regulation.”

Close, trusting relationships between adults and children are strongly linked to the development of emotional control and positive social behaviors.”

Martha B. Bronson, Self Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture (2000)

As social circles widen, children begin to perceive the needs, desires, goals and expectations that others have for them. Many of these perceptions may conflict with a child’s own norms and values, though the degree of conflict will vary from one child to another. The task of balancing these expectations is complicated by the fact that children essentially function in two societies: their circle of adult attachment figures and their circle of peers. Their emotions may be confusing to them as they begin to evaluate themselves through the lenses of both of these influential groups and to establish their moral identity. During this time it is important for parents to keep the lines of communication open, empathizing with their children’s emotions while also guiding them to respond appropriately. Parents who remain emotionally attuned to their children are likely to find that it is the standards, values and boundaries they have established that carry the most weight. And if the foundation for self-regulation has been laid successfully during the infancy and preschool years, then children’s ability to self-regulate is likely to remain stable beyond middle childhood. If it has not, parents can expect them to deal with a number of serious issues during adolescence.


The stability observed in self-regulation levels after middle childhood does not imply that children no longer need guidance in self-regulation. As adults know from personal experience, just because we have the ability and motivation to self-regulate does not mean we always succeed. Adolescents still need the help of attuned parents to guide them in making right actions automatic, whether through habitualizing them or forming appropriate “implementation intentions.” But they need help in other areas as well: the brain continues to develop significantly throughout the teen years, and many of these changes may have implications for decision-making and self-regulation. Interestingly, recent research identifies the ability to delay gratification as an important foundation for reducing risk-taking in adolescents—and they are quite capable of this even though the prefrontal cortex has not yet finished maturing. However, maturity does factor in to the ability to take a long-term perspective in making decisions, which is an area in which parents are ideally suited to guide adolescents.

Consistent with earlier developmental stages, however, adolescents are not likely to accurately receive and internalize the intended messages if parents fail to tune in to their emotional states. Unfortunately, this may be the most common mistake parents make when they press for change in their children. When children and teens come to us for advice, we are tempted to cut to the chase—to immediately give them the benefit of our experience by telling them exactly what they need to do. This is a sure path toward leaving them feeling misunderstood and isolated. However, when we take the time to connect with teens on an emotional level first, conveying a sense that we genuinely understand why they feel as they do in that situation, we not only reinforce mutual attachment but support appropriate self-regulation. This may require parents to model self-control themselves, particularly if the situation is emotionally volatile.

Clearly, whether considering adulthood, adolescence, middle childhood, or any other stage of life, self-regulation and interpersonal connection are entwined in an inseparable circular process. Just as self-regulation grows out of attuned social connection, so the success of our social connections depends to a great degree on our ability to self-regulate. Without question then, the task of connecting appropriately with our children is one of the greatest responsibilities of parenthood. Fortunately, the successful realization of that connection is also one of parenthood’s greatest joys.