Promoting Self-Control in Young Children: Getting Children to Control their Unhelpful Impulses

Updated: May 18

In this blog:

  • Answers to three important questions: Do children have less self-control today... really? What is self-control, exactly? How can we help children develop impulse-control A.S.A.P. so they are able to behave better and stop stealing our sanity!?

  • Access to several video recording if you prefer! Listen to valuable tips in these short videos.

  • Valuable Resources! Skip to the end if you want to access additional free resources on this subject.

Journey back with me twenty years... I am parenting a two and six-year-old. I had spent years working with families, studying child development, investigating effective adult-child interactions, delving into child psychology, and amassing other critical information that helped steer young children away from unhelpful behaviors and increased cooperative actions. I was teaching over 100 parents a week in my early childhood parent groups and successfully navigating challenging behaviors while working in toddler and preschool classrooms. I literally had a toolbox full of useful tools.

On a tense fall day, I was rushing to get out of the house and offered my toddler a choice - "Do you want the red cup or green cup?" She choose the red cup. Minutes later, as we sped blocks away to make 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 muster day in and out in the classroom? What happened on this day that was different? Why would someone who has years of experience, a collection of effective methods, a M.Ed. in Family Education, and years of training on how to maintain control still lose it?!

Well, you may have also discovered that learning to maintain self-control is a journey. And, as humans, it is a never-ending one. Loss of control can occur when stress hormone is pumping through our body, we feel powerless, have not had enough sleep, have held it in for long enough that overwhelm has set in, or have had early experiences that have laid an explosive neural trajectory in our brain. Quite frankly, anyone with a human brain has an easier or more difficult time controlling one’s impulses depending on what is happening around and within them.

Let's consider adult perception versus reality when it comes to self-control skills in "today's children"... Do children really have less self-control today as most adults purport? The reality is, no matter how skilled we are, not one child (or adult) will be perfect. However, what adults do will make a difference! What’s more, when young children learn to control their impulses, it leads to better behavior and less stress for the adults who care for them. Learning to manage one’s impulses and delay gratification helps set the child up for success, improve outcomes, and increase happiness, in school and in life.

Is it true that children exhibit less self-control today? Many adults believe that children today are “out of control" and lack impulse-control more than ever. Some blame parents, others media, still others the culture or the parenting styles children are being raised with today. But is it correct?

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Studies indicate children not only have higher IQs today, they actually exhibit increased self-control!

For example, in one major "redo" of the famous marshmallow test, the children actually had more self-control than kids in the '60s and '80s ! The question the study asked – “Would today's children be able to wait as long as children in previous decades had for the promised second marshmallow? Could they still resist swallowing the wonderful white goo for the full 15 minutes?” Today's children were actually able to wait longer, on average a whole two minutes longer for the second marshmallow! "Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests that today's kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s," said University of Minnesota psychologist Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD, lead researcher on the study. Visit the research article for more.


Reality: Children copy and imitate what they see.

Tips: First adults need to stay relaxed during difficult moments, infuse calm into a situation, and then children will follow along and learn what they need to regulate big emotions.

As you can see in these photos, infants (and all humans) tend to mirror what they see, feel, and hear from others. When intensity increases in one person, it also goes up in another.

Video: Promoting Self-Control by Maintaining Calm and Co-Regulating

Self-Control is tough for us all.


Reality: Self-Control is not about obedience. Strict discipline actually does not result in better behavior overall. At its core, self-control is about being able to manage a very strong inclination to do something in order to reach a goal. It is, after all, self-control.

The Tip: Gain Buy-In.

Imagine... A friend is trying to get you to go for a run – she is training for a marathon and needs motivation and accountability. She has a goal and begs you to support her. Buuuuuut.... You do not like running! Do you go running? Likely not. Does she? Likely. What could she or he do to get you to go? Probably nothing.

Children are no different. They behave in ways that align with their own goals. If we can tap into their motivation, it will help the child choose behave better. Why don't we hit our friends? Because we want others to play with us! We want to take care of others so they will take care of us! We want to be good friends to make the world a wonderful place to live so we can all thrive together. If children buy into this, they will try to avoid hitting and be more motivated to find ways to resist the instinct to hit.

The good news? Getting buy-in is relatively easy with many typical misbehaviors. And, there is one easy solution that helps turn around much resistance to our direction... make it FUN! If a 4-year-old child needs to help clean up because "You said so", they will naturally resist (power and control is one basic need of this stage of development). Play a "race the clock" game and - BAM! - Children are jumping up to engage in picking up toys. You can also use one major motivation children have, to gain your biggest asset, your attention. A simple enthusiastic statement such as "WOW! Look at what a great team we are! We are working together!" can intensely reinforce the behavior. Add a statement such as, "Since we are cleaning up so quickly, we will get five more minutes of play time! Nice work team!" and children will also see their great power to influence outcomes. Win win win.

This video gives three concrete scenarios you can easily get children to listen and "buy in" to clean up, meal time, and learning time. In just 15 minutes, you will gain three main tips to increase the buy-in, get the behaviors you want (and decrease the behaviors you don't!) You will be able to apply these strategies to improved a child's self-control, giving them the skills needed to succeed - in your care, in school, and in life. __________

Reality: Children's ability to control an impulse, wait, and delay gratification is dependent on how reliable the adult caring for them has proven to be. Have you heard about the famous marshmallow study conducted by researchers led by Walter Mischel, PhD, then at Stanford University back in the 60s? Children were given a choice, eat one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows later. Why did 50% of children fail to control their impulse to eat the white gooey treat? What influenced their ability to delay gratification so they could reach their goal of obtaining two marshmallows?

Enter in – another marshmallow test redo! Social scientists have revisited this interesting study to gain answers to these questions. The results give us a deeper level understanding of how we can promote this ability and ensure children develop the critical self-control skills needed. In the study, researchers first failed to follow through and bring the promised robust art supplies the children had waited for. The results were astounding! That one encounter had a huge influence on kids' willingness to wait when presented with the marshmallow test. Specifically, only one of the 14 children in this unreliable condition held out for the full 15-minute wait as opposed to more than half of the children who experienced the reliable encounter!

TIP: Be predictable and show you are a reliable adult in the child's life and follow through.

If children are to maintain control, delay gratification, and learn to override their impulses in the moment, they need to know they can depend on us. So, when you say it, mean it. When I encourage sharing with, "You can have a turn next", Do I make sure to follow up? After promising, "You can come back to the train later today." Do they get that opportunity? Or, do I just get too busy? Does the prompt, "We are heading out the playground in five" end up being five... or ten minutes? If you say no... do you mean it and stick to the limit? Or, do you bend to pressure during intense moments? When adults can follow though with commitments to children, it helps build trust and faith as well as help them resist their strong impulse to do the behavior you need them to stop doing.


Reality: Too much is too much - for any of us!

Tip: Give children down time. The reality is, when we are stressed or overwhelmed, we may not behave well either! After school, childcare, or a lot of adult-directed time, give children time to decompress, run outside, do art or explore other creative activities - WITHOUT an adult directing, interrupting, or taking over.

Remember, what adults do matters! I know we want what is best for young children. So we teach, direct, assist, enroll, and provide input, over and over and over. But, we all need time to find a calm space, hear our inner voice, and explore our wonderful world. Give it, and you will find a more balanced, less anxious, and more "in control" child.

Thank you for reading this blog! We truly are more together.

Raelene Ostberg

Early Childhood Specialist and Life Long Learner

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Valuable Self-Control Resources:

Articles and Videos with Overview of Self-Control:

The Studies:

The Marshmallow Redo:

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