Teaching kids self-control

Joy Dombrow
Living Loved

I remember a sweet boy named David. He was a student in my pre-kindergarten class at the private Christian preschool where I taught. At the tender age of four, David showed signs of behavioral struggle. Although kind hearted by nature, he had difficulty with impulse control. He pulled children off of slides simply because he wanted to go down first, not wanting to wait his turn. He climbed up on things that he shouldn’t, knocking his teeth out on his tumble down. He escalated in temper when things didn’t go his way, or ran away when called to obedience.


He was soon diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, and the medication he was given had some undesirable side effects.

“Calm down, David. We can work this out,” I would gently chide when emotions began to get the best of him.

He would look me in the eyes, tenderly stroke my hands to find some sort of comfort, and say,

“I can’t Mrs. Dombrow. Will you please help me?”

Compassion gripped my heart for this struggling child and we would make our way out to the hall where I would help him to reset his emotions by counting, or repeating a phrase, or just holding him.

I had to use strategies to teach him self-control.

The need for this training was obvious in David, but it is just as needed in every young child that we have the privilege of influencing. Teaching children self-control is critical to their future success in all areas of life.

We need to be mindful and strategic in this matter.

Here are some practical suggestions for doing so:

1. Teach the word self-control.

Define the word for children.  Give them an example of what it looks like. (“I want to eat that piece of chocolate right now, but I am going to choose to not to. I am going to be in charge of my body, instead of letting it be in charge of me. I am going to control myself”). Then, when you find your children acting on an impulse, you can quickly remind them to “use self-control”. It will help them to recognize their own impulses and hopefully redirect their actions.

2. Give children opportunities for guided practice in self-control.

It is unreasonable to expect that children know how to be self-controlled in public when they have not been given an opportunity to practice in private. Certainly, you can use teachable moments to speak to the issue of self-control, but it can be even better to create opportunities, or to engage in role play. For instance, place two M & M’s on a table in front of a 3 year old and tell him not to eat it, and that you will be right back. Leave the room for a couple of minutes and then return. If the child ate the M & Ms, discuss the issue of self-control and give him practice again. If he doesn’t eat them, praise him for his self-control and then reward him with a few more.

Spend some time playing games with your children. Having to take turns while playing Uno requires some self-control. Laying the right card down and being aware of the game takes concentration. Being a gracious loser requires keeping emotions in check.

It is also helpful to role play conflict situations. During the role play, talk about feelings and how to handle those feelings appropriately. Talk about what helps you to exercise self-control in your own life.

3. Use play plans and encourage lengthy play.

When children set goals for their play and stick with them for long periods of time, they are growing in self-control. When my kids were little, I would write down the plans for the day, often times including them in the process. I used simple words for my reader, alongside pictures for my non-reader. This provide stability, predictability, and structure for the children. It also gave them focus. Older children can set their own “play plan”, and if they act impulsively, you can ask “Was that in your play plan?” and put their focus back toward helpful behavior.

Often times in the summers, I would set aside one hour of the day for my kids to play with whatever toy I would set out. One day it would be legos. The next day it would be Lincoln Logs. The next day it would be art supplies. The next day it would be a puzzle. The next day it would be a refrigerator box. But it was required that they be attentive to that thing for the entire hour. They would struggle at about the 30 minute mark, but when the hour was up, they were usually so engaged that they didn’t want to stop.

4. Model and encourage vocalizing thoughts.

Children are walking impulses. They discharge their desires into their actions with no intervening agents in between. We need to grow in them those intervening agents, which will eventually become internal self talk. Externalize your own thoughts so that they can hear how you process your desires. Model for them what it means to be self-controlled. In their own behavior, try to catch your children before they act out. Validate their feelings, but then give them the reasoning and the actions that would be most helpful for the situation. (“I can see that you are angry, and that you probably feel like knocking over your sister’s tower right now, but would that be kind? What would be a better way to handle your feelings? Could you use your words instead?)

5. Set boundaries and expect obedience.

Indulging our children’s desires, or being permissive in our parenting will only leave our children floundering for proper behavior and strengthens their sense of entitlement. Ignoring impulsive behavior, or dismissing it as “cute”, “boyish”, or “no big deal” is unloving towards your children. Deal with their inappropriate behavior immediately and consistently. Placing loving limits upon our children (for toys, activities, food, rules, etc.) while they are young will help them to internalize limits for themselves when they are older. Expecting them to obey these limits will call them to self-control and eventually obedience to parents will be transferred to obedience to the Spirit of God (i.e. self-controlled by the power to the Holy Spirit).

As parents, the goal is to help our children to be mature and to function in a healthy manner as adults. Unfortunately, self-control is something many adults have yet to learn as evidenced by financial debt, extramarital affairs, strained relationships, obesity, and addictions. May we love our children well by providing them the tools they need to be disciplined in life.

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