How to Teach Your Child Self-Control

Self control is the ability to say “no” when you really want to say “yes”! Self control is delaying gratification and controlling our impulses.

In 1972 one of the classic psychology experiments of all time was done. Children’s self control was being tested. The experimenter, Walter Mischel, brought children into his laboratory one at a time. They sat at a table and were shown a marshmallow on a plate. They were told they could eat it now, or if they waited a few minutes until he returned they could have two!

Here’s some superb (and very funny) footage of how it looked.

Researchers have followed people for over 30 years of life, measuring self-control from the age of three, and observing life outcomes across the decades.

Compared with people who have high self-control, people with low self-control die younger, have more psychiatric issues and disorders, are less healthy, are more likely to be obese, smoke, and drink or use drugs, are more likely to have unsafe (and impulsive) sex, drive drunk, and commit crimes!What a list!

The science of self-control powerfully points to success in life stemming largely from our self control. Those who have high self-control generally enjoy greater health, wealth, relationships, and overall wellbeing.Here are a couple of interesting facts about kids and self-control:

  1. Girls generally show greater self-control than boys. Boys can and do catch up, but not until they are adults.
  2. Self-control is easier when trying “not” to do things than when trying “to” do things. As an example, it is easier to not eat the ice-cream in the freezer than it is to force yourself to tidy the house, write that letter, or prepare dinner. (Bear this in mind when you ask your children “to do” things – it’s harder to do than to “not” do).
  3. Self control can change. We can develop it, and so can our children.
  4. Our self-control can be depleted over time. It’s a bit of a tangent, but this video explains how it works (and it’s really cool too).

So how do we teach self-control to our children?

There are two very important issues to be aware of. First, if we constantly try to influence and subtely (or explicitly) control our children they will not develop self-control. That’s because we will be in control. Decades of research shows that being too controlling of our kids is bad for their development. Second, demanding that a child control himself (or herself), while not only controlling, can sometimes be age-inappropriate. We must ensure we are encouraging our children to do things that are age-appropriate.To teach self-control (and impulse control/delayed gratification) to your children,

  • Be a model. If you are explosive or ‘lose control’, your children will learn the same behaviour no matter how much you ‘demand’ something better of them.
  • Set limits. Children will be far more likely to regulate their behaviour when they understand limits, particularly if they are involved in the process (where appropriate).
  • Give responsibilities. By encouraging children to contribute (again in an age-appropriate way. We can’t ask four year-olds to do a perfect job mowing the lawn! But they can “help” with the dishes, tidying up, and so on) they can develop a sense of control.
  • Let your children make decisions for themselves. Talk about the ramifications of their decisions and help them think through the future outcomes related to what they choose.
  • Talk about self control. Share the information you’ve gained from this blog with your children. Talk about the psychology of control. Watch the movie above with them. Laugh about it, but also share the ramifications (positive and negative) about self-control. It may be particularly useful to encourage your children to tell you about times when they did or did not control themselves. Have them identify the outcomes of their choices to use self-control.
  • Do your own experiment. Once you’ve watched the movie with the marshmallows and talked about it, have some fun with it. Show your children that they CAN develop self-control, and that the outcomes are worth it.

In all of these circumstances our children have the opportunity to make controlled choices, or impulsive choices. When they make impulsive choices our guidance combined with their own self-reflection and insight (again guided by us) can help them better understand self-control and where it leads.

Self-control predicts health, wealth, and civil decisions for good or for bad depending on how we choose to (or choose not to) control ourselves. Teaching children self-control requires skilled parenting, an ability to guide rather than direct, and lots of encouragement. But if you can control yourself as you guide your children, you will be putting them on a path that leads to success in life!


Caspi, A., et al. (1996). Behavioural observations at age 3 predict adult psychiatric disorders. Longitudinal evidence from a birth cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry, 53, 1033-1039.
Kochanska, G., et al. (2001). The development of self-regulation in the first four years of life. Child Development, 72, 1091-1111.
Moffitt, T., et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, 108, 2693-2698.

Are you Parenting Like Your Parent?

Have you ever had one of those moments when something comes out of your mouth that doesn’t sound anything like you? You snap at your partner or scold your child, using words you never use or threats you’d never see through. Afterwards, you stand there stumped for a few seconds wondering, “Where did that come from?” Then, it hits you – you sound just like your mother or father.

For better or worse, many of our parents’ traits live on in us. This can be a good thing; positive identifications with qualities we liked in our parents help us to take on characteristics we respect and admire. Unfortunately, on the flip side, negative traits in our parents, especially those that caused us misery, fear and frustration, can also linger in our psyche and impact our behavior. This is especially the case in present moments of stress in our life today that somehow remind us of our past and manage to set off old triggers in us.

As you may imagine, scenarios that are reminiscent of our childhood are increasingly likely to arise when we ourselves become parents. We may not really remember how our dad used to snap on long car trips until our own kids start bickering in the backseat. We may not recall our mom teasing us when we whined cried until we find ourselves making a sarcastic comment to our own child when he or she gets fussy.

The good news is, by noticing these traits inside ourselves, by identifying where they come from, and by altering our behavior to match our own standards and principles, we can differentiate from negative programming from our past. We can become more and more like the parent we want to be, not necessarily the one we were raised by.

There are several important steps in the process of differentiation. First, you have to become observers of your own reactions. You should try to notice interactions between you and your children that seem out of character or don’t represent a way you want to be. Do certain behaviors or situations trigger you? For example, does helping your daughter with homework spark an unusual amount of frustration or impatience? Do your son’s tantrums make you lose your temper? Think of the scenes and scenarios that lead to negative interactions between you and your child. Is there a pattern?

The second step to this process involves asking yourself the question, “Could I be projecting characteristics or dynamics from my own childhood, reliving or reenacting aspects of my own childhood with my kids?” To figure this out means becoming aware of how you yourself were parented. Were your parents impatient with you when it came to helping you with school work? Were they overly pressuring, complacent or unsupportive? Did your parents ever “lose it” with you when you were having an emotional meltdown?

As you start to piece together memories, you might start begin to see the value of making a coherent narrative about your past. Telling your story, even to yourself, can help you to understand your actions in the present and consciously decide how to move into your future.

Reflecting on and putting together your story can be painful. Sad memories are sure to arise. The realization that your parents were human, and therefore, imperfect, can be tough to accept. We have a natural tendency to want to protect our parents. We even unconsciously identify with their critical attitudes toward us and often take on their disparaging points of view as our own. This internalized parent is what we refer to as one’s “critical inner voice.” It can feel threatening to separate from the people who we once relied on for care and safety. Yet, by having compassion for our child selves, we can extend this feeling to our children. We can differentiate from our parents’ less desirable attitudes and traits, while maintaining qualities that we admired in them.

Once we make the connection between past events and our present behavior, and once we have feeling for ourselves and the struggles we endured, we become much stronger in our effort to challenge the negative traits we have as parents. We can question critical or indulgent attitudes and behaviors toward our children that don’t seem to fit the situation. We can recognize that, just as we are not our parents, our children are not our child selves. Thus, we can become more attuned to what’s really going on in our kids. We can start to separate from the parents we don’t want to be and become the people we’d like our kids to one day imitate.

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the free Dec. 4 Webinar, “How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Child. ” Learn more or register here

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone, visit