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Promoting Self-Control in Young Children

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

A common question from those caring for young children is:

What can I do to STOP this child from biting, hitting, yelling, fidgeting, poking, throwing, talking back, running away, or refusing to follow my directions!?

The reality is, for children to avoid these instinctual reactions and behave well, they will need help (and a lot of patience) from adults.

What you do matters! Adults can bolster a child’s ability to self-regulate over time, through specific daily interactions and fun games or activities. With adult assistance, children can learn to resist their unhelpful and instinctual reactions and replace them with more acceptable behaviors. When adults incorporate planned responses to promote the skills children need, they teach the child to manage their impulses, avoid troublesome behaviors, and help them learn to use more appropriate responses to tense situations in the future. These critical self-regulation skills will set the child up to thrive in school and in life.

What the child experiences matters!

Over time, the children you care for will learn to replace challenging behaviors with other more suitable actions – the heart of having self-control. Just like lifting weights at a gym, the more a muscle is pushed to activate, the stronger it grows. If a toddler interrupts and, every time, the adult immediately attends to the toddler, that child will have more difficulty learning to wait. However, if the child has many experiences where they need to wait, starting with a few seconds and working up to longer as the child is capable, they will build the skill! By five year old, the child will have developed their “waiting muscle” and their ability to wait, without even needing to put as much energy into resisting the urge to interrupt.

In this SUPER blog, you will find:

The research is clear - negative behaviors will decrease when children learn the skills needed to control their impulses. Adult caregivers have a significant impact on the child’s behavior, today and tomorrow!


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What is self-control, really?

When many adults assert that young children need to control themselves, they often mean they need to follow adult direction. In reality, self-control is not about obedience and doing what someone else tells you to do, without question. Roy Baumeister, a Social Psychologist specializing in will power and self-control, defined self-control as

"Any effort by a human being to alter its own responses. Self-control prevents your normal or natural response from occurring and substitutes another response or lack of response in place. It includes the ability to stop, change, substitute, and start behaviors" - "Losing Control” by Roy Baumeister

We are all more likely to cognitively control our behavior when we buy into the reason behind the rule or request. Imagine I set aim to “get fit” by regularly visiting my local gym. Then, on a sunshiny day, my friend texts about an impromptu happy hour. Which do I choose? What ensures I stick to my goal and resist my first impulse? Am I able to override my first gut response to ditch the workout for a tasty beverage?


Journey back with me twenty years. I am working at Early Childhood Family Education as a Family Educator and parenting two children – a two-year-old and a six-year-old.

I spent years working with families and studying child development, investigating effective adult-child interactions, delving into child psychology, and amassing other critical information. Most days, I effectively steered young children away from unhelpful behaviors and increasing cooperation. I was teaching over 100 parents per week in my early childhood parent groups and successfully navigating challenging behaviors working in toddler and preschool classrooms. I literally had a toolbox full of successful tools to use in a variety of challenging situations.

On a tension-filled Fall day, as I rushed to get out of the house, I offered my toddler a simple choice.

""Do you want the red cup or the green cup?" She chose the red cup.

Minutes later, as we sped blocks away to get to an appointment, she insisted, "I want the green cup!" After trying numerous proven strategies, she continued to escalate. "GREEN CUP! I WANT IT!" As my frustration boiled over, I exploded - "IT'S A CUP! IT’S A CUP! WHO CARES WHAT COLOR IT IS?! You just DRINK OUT OF IT!" As I propelled anything within reach throughout my vehicle (Not my proudest parenting moment, for sure.)

Why did this happen to me? Where was the self-control I could mustered day in and day out in the classroom? Why would someone who has years of experience, a collection of effective methods, an M.Ed. in Family Education, and years of training on how to maintain control still lose it?!

The reality is, achieving consistent impulse-control is difficult for all humans. Our ability fluctuates depending on what is happening around and within us.

You may have also discovered that maintaining self-control is a journey. And, for humans, it’s a never-ending one. Loss of control can occur for any of us when stress hormones are pumping through our bodies. Regretful behavior easily ensues when we feel powerless, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, or have had early childhood experiences that have laid an explosive neural pathway in our brain from prolonged stress or trauma.