Strategies for Teaching Self-Control in Children and Tweens

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Children who have strong self-control enjoy more school success, greater avoidance of risk-taking activities and a healthier social life. Here are five ways you can encourage self-control in your child or tween.

1. Teaching Self-Control by Using an Effective Parenting Style

As parents, we want to our absolute best to prepare our child for the real world. And while it may seem impossible to know the most effective way to do so, psychologists have found that one style of parenting may be more effective at helping teach children self-control.

They call this parenting style "authoritative." Authoritative parents provide rules and structure that they expect to be followed. Unlike other parenting styles, though, these parents explain why each rule exists and offers flexibility and support if the child has a misstep. Such as working collaboratively with the child about an appropriate consequence, or talking through what may have led to breaking certain rules. This high-communication, high-warmth, high-structure style seems to produce children who are well-adjusted and self-disciplined.

2. Leading By Example: Demonstrating Self-Controlled Behavior

Your actions are perhaps the most powerful teacher in your child's life. It doesn't matter what you say if you don't model self-controlled behavior yourself your child will likely follow your lead. You can learn to take a deep breath before speaking when you're upset as well as control your words and actions when something frustrates you.

This also means demonstrating the ability to delay gratification, or to put off small immediate rewards in exchange for later, larger rewards. For instance, when you're at the mall with your tween and you see an expensive item you'd love to buy, you could demonstrate self-discipline by saying aloud, "I'd love to buy that, but I'm going to instead choose to save up for our vacation this summer."

3. Sharing Encouraging Words About the Future

Researchers have found that children and tweens who have a "future time perspective" do better with delay of gratification and self-control. The 'I want it now' generation doesn't control their impulsive behavior. To show your child patience, explain and demonstrate to them how being strategic and planning behavior has many benefits. A "future time perspective" is the propensity to think less about the past and the present and more about the future. You can help your child develop this way of thinking by encouraging him or her to visualize future events in detail. You probably often ask how his day was when he come homes; note that this question encourages past and present thought. Follow up with some future-oriented questions, such as exactly what the tween plans to do next week, or even discussion about possible future careers. Start by sharing a goal list or 5-year-plan that you are working on.

4. Offering Opportunities to Practice Self-Control

Finally, provide your child with plenty of opportunities to practice self-control without judgment or requirement. It is in helping them see that they have time and choice to act that they can practice self-control.

"Knowledge is of little value if it is not applied in practice," says school psychologist George Bear, PhD. Sports are one arena for practicing self-control and patience. Sports also allow tweens to take risks in a safe and controlled environment. This is important since risk-taking teaches about the consequences of actions, which in turn promotes self-discipline and future thinking. You can also provide your tween with home-based opportunities to make self-controlled decisions. For instance, if you offer an allowance, you might try a decision-based allowance system: have your child choose whether to take their usual allowance right now or a slightly larger allowance at the end of the month.

At first, she may choose the immediate payoff, but with time she just might come to see the very real value of delaying the reward.

5. Reward Self-Controlling Behavior

As your tween starts to display positive self-controlling behavior support it by recognizing verbally, and rewarding tangibly for it. While there needs to balance so that they maintain intrinsic motivation to self-control, reinforcing good behavior will only get you more positive results. You may have heard you get more of what you focus on. This is true in "catching" your tween doing good. As they see the rewards of positive behavior and self-control, they are more mindful of bad choices, and would rather avoid consequences, because they have experience and support that positive behavior is the best choice to find satisfaction and security.


Bear, George G. , PhD. School Discipline and Self-Discipline: A Practical Guide to Promoting Prosocial Student Behavior. 2010. New York: Guilford.

Romer, Daniel, Duckworth, Angela L., Sznitman, Sharon, and Park, Sunhee. "Can Adolescents Learn Self-Control? Delay of Gratification in the Development of Control Over Risk-Taking."Prevention Science. 2010: 11, 319-330.

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