Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


8 Steps to Help Your Child Develop Self Control

Self-control is all about learning to regulate our emotions.

“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t willpower … It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it?”—Walter Mischel

We can think of self-discipline as the ability to manage ourselves to reach our goals. In Walter Mischel's Marshmallow experiments, he tested how long a child can resist eating a treat, if it means she will then get two treats that she really wants. In other words, does the child have the self-discipline to control her impulses to meet her goal?

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

(And yes, these were kids who actually WANTED the second treat, and trusted the interviewer to give it to them. If you have questions about whether we can draw valid conclusions from this experiment, you'll want to start with our last post: Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?)

The part that's interesting about the marshmallow experiment to me is that ˆif a 4-year-old (who wanted a second treat and trusted the experimenter) could control themselves to not eat the treat, they grew into happier adults.

I think that's because these children could manage their impulses to meet their goals. Our ability to manage our emotions and impulses is essential if we want to meet our goals, from getting along on the playground to holding a job. And adults who repeatedly fail to realize their aspirations in life are certainly less happy.

To clarify this issue, we might want to think of this trait as "emotional regulation" rather than "self-discipline." (Mischel himself said that this experiment — and all "self control" — is being able to manage "hot" emotions well enough to resist the temptations that otherwise derail us from reaching our goals.)

The good news is that there are ways for parents to help their children build brains that are better at self-regulation (i.e., self-control.)

Let's look at the steps.

1. The foundation of self-control is trust.

Parents who are responsive to children's needs foster trust. When the hungry infant wakes up crying and the parent picks him up and feeds him, he learns to trust that food will come. Eventually, this child will trust that he will indeed get the treat he's been promised eventually, so he doesn't have to eat it this minute. And he'll be able to soothe his own impatience and worry to manage himself in stressful situations. Parents help their children reach this relatively mature stage faster every time they soothe anxiety and foster a feeling of safety and acceptance.

Not surprisingly, when the Marshmallow test is manipulated so that the child has more trust in the experimenter, the child is able to wait longer to eat the marshmallow. When the child has less trust in the experimenter, he eats the marshmallow sooner. Wouldn't you?

2. Children learn emotional regulation from our modeling.

Parents who de-escalate drama and soothe their child's upset help the child build a brain that calms down more easily. Every time a child is soothed, her brain strengthens the neural pathways to soothe and regulate emotions, which will eventually allow her to soothe herself.

By contrast, when parents can't manage their own emotions and react angrily, or take their child's challenging behavior personally, the child gets a clear message that life is full of emergencies and she needs to stay mobilized for protection and attack. She builds a vigilant neural system that easily escalates and has a harder time calming down, which makes it difficult for him to control her emotions and behavior.

So one of the most important things you can do to help your child learn self-control is to regulate your own emotions, so you can stay calm and patient with your child.

3. The self-control capacity of the brain increases with practice.

Toddlers don't have the ability to resist a treat left available to them, while 30 percent of 4-year-olds and virtually all adults do. What makes the difference? The prefrontal cortex, which is barely developed in a 2-year-old and reaches maturity around the age of 25. But there's a wide variation in how fast the prefrontal cortex develops and how well it works at every age. How do you strengthen the prefrontal cortex? Practice!

Some people have theorized that children who are "smarter" are the ones who are able to wait. But "smartness" is not static, and it is not just innate ability. It depends on being able to control your impulses, which we know is strengthened every time the child CHOOSES to do so. Any repeated action strengthens the brain. Again: Practice!

The brain changes based on experience that is repeated. Every time kids voluntarily give up something they want for something they want more, they build the neural pathways in the frontal cortex that are associated with self-discipline.

Notice if he never has to let go of something he wants, he doesn't get the chance to practice controlling himself. The child is practicing self-discipline only when he has a goal — for instance, two marshmallows soon (or maybe his mother's approval) — which is more important to him than his immediate desire -- for instance, one marshmallow immediately (or maybe to knock his little sister down.) That's why permissive parenting, that doesn't ask children to manage themselves in accordance with appropriate limits, doesn't help children learn self-regulation.

4. Self-control is choosing to give up what we want for something we want more.

Notice this doesn't happen unless it's the child's goal. When he's forced to give something up, he isn't practicing self-discipline. The prefrontal cortex practices self-control every time it chooses to give something up (that treat on the plate) for something it wants more (in this case, two treats.) When they're young, children relinquish hundreds of impulses daily (grabbing the candy bar in the supermarket line, throwing their cup across the room, peeing on the floor.)

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

Why would any child choose to overcome her impulse when she wants to do something? Because there is something she wants more than her immediate impulse. That something is her warm connection with the parent, as long as that connection includes a sense of her self as valued and able to meet her needs. Over time, as she makes constructive choices, she begins to see herself as a person who acts in a certain way. ("I'm someone who washes my hands before eating.... who uses my words when I'm angry... who does my homework.") So over time, what motivates her self-discipline (or what she wants more than her immediate impulse) is a sense of mastery and positive identity.

5. Self-control starts with the Self.

Notice that the child has to make the choice to give up what he wants in the moment for something he wants more; he can't feel forced. This is self-discipline, meaning the motivation must be internal.

(Alfie Kohn, with whom I agree about most parenting issues, questions whether "self-discipline" is even a desirable trait to encourage. He defines it very differently than I do, however: "marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable." That's not "self" discipline as I define it, because the goals come from outside of us.)

So as a parent, "making" your child practice self-control won't help the brain develop self-control. Instead, find situations where your child wants to exercise self-control. For instance:

  • Play "Simon Says" or similar games.
  • When your child hits a roadblock in pursuing one of his passions, express your conviction that, "Yes, that's hard... Hard things are worth doing... You can do hard things!... You have done hard things before, like x and y.... I am right here to give you support while you do this hard thing!"

6. Empathic limits give kids practice in self-discipline.

Every time we set a limit that our child accepts, she's practicing self-control. Sure, she'd rather keep playing, but she gets in the bath because there's something she wants more than to play all night. No, not to splash all over the bathroom. What she wants is the loving connection with her parents.

So punishment doesn't encourage self-discipline, because the child isn't actually choosing to stop what she was doing; she's being forced.

Note that permissiveness doesn't encourage self-discipline because the child doesn't feel a need to stop herself. Setting a limit with understanding, so that your child is willing to accept it, is what helps your child develop self-discipline.

7. Waiting is good practice up to a point.

There's a common misconception, popularized by Pam Druckerman in Bringing Up Bébé; that kids in France learn better self-control than American kids because they're trained early to wait for their parents' attention and to follow rigid schedules. But Mischel never conducted the Marshmallow test with French kids, so there's no evidence that they'd do better on it than American kids. And there are no studies asserting that French adults are more self-disciplined than American adults. In fact, there's no research showing that either French kids or adults have better self-control than anyone else.

We also know that rigid schedules are the opposite of responsive parenting, and that responsive parenting is associated with healthier emotional development, so at least that part of Druckerman's theory doesn't hold up against well-established science.

But I do think Druckerman is partly right about the skill of "waiting."

We know that every time we exercise self-control, we build our ability to draw on it to meet our goals. So it's true, as Druckerman asserts, that kids who get practice "waiting" do learn to tolerate waiting, to trust that the waiting will be worth it, and to learn strategies for waiting. There's an important caveat, though.

Waiting only helps kids develop self-control if we've first observed #1 and #2, above. In other words, if the parent makes the child wait for longer than she's developmentally able (not soothing as in #1), her anxiety about getting her needs met overwhelms her and she learns she has to scream to get what she wants, rather than learning self-control. And if the parent is yelling at the child to wait (as in #2, above) the child learns that it's an emergency, which sabotages her attempts at self-control.

What's more, the parent needs to be lovingly available to support the child so he can overcome the anxiety of waiting. To take another example:

"You are so hungry, I know... The pasta is almost cooked... Come, let's get the colander so we can drain it."

This reassures the child that the food is indeed coming, and teaches the valuable skill of self-distraction (which is a primary skill used by preschoolers who pass the marshmallow test). If, instead, the parent snaps "Stop whining, you aren't starving -- I'm moving as fast as I can!" the child may experience the parent as withholding something he needs, and he's given no help to learn to wait.

Does he learn that he eventually gets fed? Yes, but not without some anxiety along the way, which won't help him resist that marshmallow. And since he experiences himself as frequently struggling against his parent, he has no incentive to stay open to parental influence — so why not take whatever marshmallows he can whenever he can?

The bottom line on waiting is that while we can encourage the development of self-control by empathically helping our child endure discomfort, it backfires if kids think we're tormenting them. Luckily, life gives kids plenty of practice in waiting without our orchestrating it, because:

8. Children learn self-control naturally as they attempt to master their world.

Kids develop self-discipline when they're motivated by something important to them. Playing with other kids requires them to manage their emotions and impulses. Making cookies requires them to wait until the cookies are baked. Getting good at soccer requires them to practice kicking over and over.

Every time a child has to manage himself, he learns a strategy that helps him. For instance, the children who are able to resist the treat are proficient at refocusing their attention to concentrate on something else. When the researcher leaves the room, they distract themselves. After one longing look at the marshmallow, a child will ignore it, instead pulling out the most interesting toy from the shelf. How did he learn this? By the repeated experience of wanting something badly enough that he regulated himself to get it.

Are you worried that your child might eat the marshmallow?

I have good news for you.

Mischel acknowledges that a "substantial subset of people failed the marshmallow task as 4-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults." Researchers are still conducting longitudinal studies to figure out how they did it. But we know that self-control is all about learning to regulate our emotions, which allows us to regulate our thoughts and behavior.

As Mischel says: "We can’t control the world, but we can control how we respond to it. Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."

So the die is not cast at age four. The brain is like a muscle — it strengthens throughout life, depending on how it's used. Parents who are emotionally responsive, set empathic limits, model emotional regulation, and encourage children to pursue their passions will raise self-disciplined kids, and that's probably true regardless of whether the child passes the marshmallow test at age four.

Does it sound like the parents' own self-discipline predicts the child's? You bet. But that's another study.

More from Laura Markham Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Laura Markham Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today