Developing self-control in children

Developing self-control in children

5 simple steps to foster willpower in your child

The world’s leading expert on self-control, Professor Walter Mischel, has proven that the ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life. Willpower, or self-regulation, is a vital trait that often distinguishes those who succeed with goals and aspirations from those who find it difficult to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle or stay away from addictive behaviours such as smoking. From a young age we begin to learn how to regulate our impulses, we learn that we need self-control when at the park waiting for our turn down the slide, as well as in adulthood to hold a steady job.


However, the area responsible for controlled decision-making, the prefrontal cortex, only begins to develop from the age of four. It’s why children find it so hard to follow rules and why it’s essential that they’re raised with limits and boundaries set in a loving, secure and mutually respectful environment. While they try very hard to stick to limits, their brain development is often insufficient at an early age to control impulses and emotions.

When teaching your child about self-regulation and control, it’s crucial to make sure the goals you’ve set are important or authentic to them. For example, if you have a loving, nurturing and trusting relationship with your child, the end goal of pleasing you and making you happy will far outweigh acting out or doing something they know they shouldn’t.

Teach them simple techniques to manage their minds

  1. Remember that you are your child’s number one teacher and that they’ll learn the most from you. By demonstrating self-control in your life, you’ll teach them to do the same in theirs.
  2. Reward their self-control consistently. Life coach Judy Klipin ( recommends planning ‘age-appropriate milestones and objectives for your child that can be celebrated and rewarded’. This, in turn, can change boring ‘must do’ chores and tasks such as making the bed or doing homework into a positive ‘want to’ task with a beneficial outcome or objective – such as receiving a gold star.
  3. Teach them to be compassionate towards themselves. ‘When we make mistakes or let ourselves down, we can identify where we went wrong and think about how we can support ourselves to do better tomorrow,’ says Judy.
  4. The art of distraction. Teach your child how to distract themselves should they reach an uncontrollable or impulsive state. If they get angry and tend to lash out, teach them to give themselves a big squeeze or to count something in their vicinity until they calm down. Teaching them coping or self-soothing mechanisms will enable them to develop their self-control.
  5. As in adults, helping children focus on the present will develop their prefrontal cortex. Make sure your child does regular exercise or activities that encourage focus on the present – such as reading or completing puzzles. Yoga for kids is also an excellent practice that can equip children with skills of self-awareness and control.



Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Your Family’s Digital editor. Avid retweeter. When I’m not scrolling Instagram you’ll find me in my garden. Keen on DIY and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some chalk paint.


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