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How to Improve Self-Control in Children

A proven strategy that's rooted in brain science.

Key points

  • Self-control is related to two areas of the brain: the limbic system (“hot” brain) and the prefrontal cortex (“cool” brain).
  • Some kids are naturally lower on self-control because they have "hot-brain" biases, based on the genes they were born with.
  • "When-then" plans take advantage of brain science to wire new connections and help children overcome self-control struggles.

If you’re reading this post, you may have a child like mine: the proverbial bull in the china shop. Or the one who seemingly ignores you when it’s time to stop playing to come down for dinner. Challenges with self-regulation are at the top of many parents’ lists of things-our-kids-do-that-drive-us-crazy.

To understand our children’s self-control or lack thereof, we need to start by understanding where it comes from.

The reason some kids are lower on self-control starts with the luck of the draw when it comes to the genes they were born with. That sequence of 3 billion base pairs they inherited contains thousands of genes that influence the way our children’s brains are wired. It’s what makes each of our children unique from the very start of life. Some brains are simply more primed to pay attention to the here and now and aren’t as good at thinking through consequences.

Self-control is related to two key areas of the brain. The first—the limbic system—has been called the “hot” brain. It is located deep in the brain and is the most basic, primitive part. It is emotional, reflexive, and unconscious. It is highly tuned for “Go!” responses. It is also fully functional at birth; that’s why babies are quick to cry when hungry or in pain. It’s also why toddlers have so little self-control—they only have highly developed hot brains. They are like little engines with no brakes.

The brakes come from a second, more complex brain area—the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex develops more slowly and is not fully complete until the mid-20s. This “cool” part of the brain is involved in more reflective, complex decision-making.

Our kids’ natural ability to self-regulate is related to how active their “hot” brains are, as compared to their “cool” brains. All children show an increase in self-control as they get older and their prefrontal cortex develops. But how much self-control children develop is a product of their unique brain wiring.

The good news is that the children who are the most genetically prone to having challenges with self-control are also the ones who show the most improvement with self-control strategies.

Remember that kids with low self-control have hot-brain biases. Their brains lean toward the here and now. That means that when they fail to come when you call or to stop running around when you ask, they aren’t trying to be defiant or to ignore you. Their hot brains are wired to focus on the present, and their cool brains aren’t proficient at thinking through the consequences for their future selves (when you’re piping mad they didn’t come).

Part of the reason it is so frustrating for us parents is that it feels like our kids should be able to behave, and they are choosing not to. After all, they just told you “hands are not for hitting” right before they slugged their sibling. But just because your child can dutifully recite the rule for you does not mean that their brains have the ability to follow through on it. Their hot brains are fully functional, but their cool brains have a long way to go. That makes it incredibly hard to control impulses.

Self-control and when-then plans

One way to get around this developmental gap is When-then plans. When-then plans help eliminate the need for the cool brain to guide our kids to a better course of action by eliminating the need for thought altogether.

When-then plans are simple: when X happens, then you will do Y. You let your child’s hot brain, which registers the here-and-now situation, do the work. When my alarm goes off, then I will get out of bed. When my mom tells me to pull on my shoes, then I will pull on my shoes.

You connect the situation that usually results in a breakdown of effortful control with a pre-planned response. Every time the when happens, your child will respond with their then. They don’t think about it. It doesn’t allow for any decisions in the moment. When X happens, then do Y. Over time, it becomes a habit and doesn’t require effortful control anymore.

The key to success is to target a few of your child’s behaviors that you really want to focus your effort on. You can’t tackle all your child’s self-control struggles at once (sorry). Remember that you are trying to remove the element of thinking things through, and if they have more than one or two when-then plans that they have to try to remember, it’s too much for their brains to develop that all-important automatic response.

The when can be almost anything. It can be an internal trigger (when I start feeling mad; when I get really excited) or an external trigger (when Mom or Dad asks me to come; when I see a dog on the street that I really want to pet). The then is also anything you want to come up with. The key is to have it be an action that is acceptable to you and your child and that solves the self-control challenge. When your sibling steals a toy, then you will come and tell me instead of hitting them. When I say it’s time to brush your teeth, then you will immediately go to the bathroom and brush.

To give when-then plans a jump-start, you need to practice with your child. Have them pretend to be in the when situation and practice immediately doing the then response. Then reward and repeat. You’re trying to make the behavior automatic, and you do that by practicing it time and time again. It helps the brain wire a new connection between when and then. The more your child rehearses and practices, the better they will get.

Key takeaways

Remember that you’re working against thousands of years of evolutionary programming. It takes time to make a behavior automatic, and even when your child builds their self-control, they will still slip up from time to time. That’s when it’s up to us parents to practice our self-control. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that their brains are under construction. Alas, lecturing or yelling won’t make their brains grow any faster and punishing them for failing to behave in ways that are beyond their capacity only makes them feel bad about themselves. Keep nudging your child toward developing their self-control, even when they push yours to the limit.

More from Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D.
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