Anyone for chocolate? How do we learn self-control?

Melissa Hood began learning about child behaviour when she had some problems with her son. That experience led her to set up The Parent Practice, to teach good parenting skills to families who want to learn. Here she reveals some brilliant ways to help you to help your kids control their impulsive behaviour.

Easter calls to mind two rituals that fall on opposite ends of the consumption spectrum. During Lent, Christians (and some non-believers too) traditionally take the opportunity to give something up. At the end of that period there is often a great glut of consumption with chocolate overload. My gym prepared us in advance for this overindulgence by exhorting us to burn calories ahead of time! So, given that modelling is at least 80% of parenting, what does this tell our children about self-control?

You may want to teach your children about moderation in consumption, or delayed gratification, if not complete self-deprivation, and maybe Lent is as good a time as any to do it. But maybe you want to introduce such ideas throughout the year rather than just one month?

My son had a highly impulsive temperament as a little boy and got into trouble a lot because he didn’t stop and think about his actions. On one memorable occasion he and his cousin dropped pebbles off the balcony of a high-rise apartment, not considering the consequences of that action. They didn’t think that the cars parked below might be damaged and that costs would be incurred and people would be upset. The parents were sorely tempted to come down hard with punishment and shouting (there had been plenty of that on previous occasions) but by then we knew that approach would lead to lots of resentment and little learning. Instead the boys were (relatively) calmly held accountable and required to make amends and so took a step toward gaining some perspective and some self-control.

Here are some tips to encourage children to be able to make choices for the future that depend on some sacrifice in the present, to show self-control.

  • Start with realistic expectations. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with perspective and impulse control and this is not fully developed until early adulthood so don’t expect young children to be very good at not sucking their thumbs for the sake of their future orthodontic health. Children learn self-control if parents are non-critical teachers. Modelling matters. What do they see us doing in the way of saving for coveted items or putting time into a project that will benefit us long term, such as study, or even taking some cool down time when our buttons have been pushed? When we slip up in the pursuit of our goals do they see us giving up or accepting that we’re human and trying again? Rather than berating our lack of willpower we can talk about what strategies we’ll use to get back on track. We may need to draw attention to what we do so that they take on these family values. This is how children learn.
  • What do you require your children to do? Many families will have rules like: homework is done first before screens can be accessed. Some families will have tripartite pocket-money systems whereby children must save some and give some away as well as being able to spend some.
  • Notice and comment whenever your children show self-control. For example: “You were really cross with Jason just then but you didn’t hit him. You told him loudly that you don’t like it when he messes with your Lego.” Or: “You made a healthy eating choice when you only took two biscuits, even though those are your favourites.” Or: “That was a good strategy to do your biology homework first when you were fresh. I know that’s the most challenging at the moment.”
  • Encourage self-control by exercising your own. When they do something you don’t like, push the pause button and consider the reason for the behaviour. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren’t trying to get at you. What did they really need in that moment and how can you help them repair the situation?
  • Describe how they feel in words so that they develop stronger connections between the emotional part of their brains and the logical part. Impulse-control depends on being able to access your cool brain and tell yourself, “Yes I’d love to play Minecraft all day but it takes away from time with my family and friends.” Describing their emotions gives them control over those feelings. Name it to tame it.
  • Developing self-control depends on having opportunities to make choices. This means parents shouldn’t micro-manage but step back and allow children to learn from their choices. Sometimes asking questions can channel a child’s thinking in the right direction better than telling them what to do.

In a world where many act to fulfil only their own desires and get into difficulties by not stopping to think, teaching self-control is an amazing gift to give your children. For more ideas like these look no further than Real Parenting for Real Kids: Enabling parents to bring out the best in their children by Melissa Hood (published on 27th April 2016), or visit:

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