“I Want It—Now!” How Children Learn Self-Control

Parents shape children’s emotion regulation

Posted Dec 16, 2014

*First author is Elise Murray

We see it all the time. A child “acting up,” making a fuss in his stroller, or rolling on the floor bawling, because he wants something he is not getting. The bystanders are typically embarrassed by the situation, either assuming the parent is irresponsible for not attending to their child, or that the child is just an inherent nightmare. But where does child self-control come from?

It is best to understand how children come to react in situations where they need to enact control over their desires or emotions. Dr. Julia Braungart Rieker recently spoke about her lab’s research looking at how children regulate their emotions, and consequently, their impulses and behavior.

In laboratory experiments, researchers can document the coping strategies young children use in   tasks such as “still face,”* where parents interact with the child and then are briefly non-responsive to see how the child copes (Tronick et al., 1978). Researchers note that children react by:

o   Self-comforting (e.g., sucking thumb)

o   Looking away

o   Distracting themselves (“information overload readjustment”)

o   Avoidance

o   Help-seeking

o   Communicating (Ekas, Lickenbrock, & Braungart-Rieker, 2013) 

She explained that children learn to up- or down-regulate themselves in reaction to situations. Those who typically react with less emotion than normal learn to up-regulate, or display more emotional transparency whereas those who naturally react typically with greater emotion will learn to down-regulate, displaying less emotion to conform to social or situational norms. These capacities are related to other things, such as later coping skills, mood regulation, and defensive strategies.

What are the roots of their capacities? According to Dr. Braungart-Rieker there are three key factors:

1.  Child Temperament. Temperament is the precursor of personality and the components that vary in young children are activity level, sociability and emotionality Temperament is a biologically-influenced component shaped by early experience. It is characterized by emotional and behavioral reactions that are pretty stable over time.

In a study of 4 month olds using the Still-Face Task,* infants who were higher in negative temperament (more irritable) engaged less with mothers in self-comforting and visual self-distraction (looking away; Braungart-Rieker, Garwood, Powers & Notaro, 1998). This is one example of how temperament leads to certain ways of emotion regulation. But there is a way to curb developments in negative temperament. For this we look to parental sensitivity.

2. Parental Sensitivity. Parent sensitivity refers to a “parent’s ability to perceive and infer the meaning behind an infant’s behavioral signals, and to respond to them promptly and appropriately” (Braungart-Rieker, 2014). Greater caregiver sensitivity is correlated with infant positive affect from 3-7 months old initially; it is related to increases in infant positive affect and self-comforting during experimental stress testing (still-face), and to greater visual orientation from the child toward the parents (Braungart-Rieker et al., 2014).

So how can you be sensitive with your baby?

  •  Notice and respond to the baby’s reactions. The baby initially has built-in instincts and needs that are signaled to caregivers. It is vital to respond to these signals from the get-go as the mutual responsive relationship is built in the first months of life.
  • Don’t let the baby cry. You need to be responsive to their needs, noticing discomfort and remedying it before the baby becomes distressed. Assuming it is okay for babies to “cry it out” is not fulfilling the baby’s needs.
  • Sooth the baby with cooing and physical touch. Increase your sensitivity by engaging in skin-to-skin contact for long periods of time—this will attune your body to the baby’s needs.
  • Don’t listen to people who tell you that you are spoiling the baby. That’s impossible. The baby has no wants to manipulate you with. The baby has built in needs that require responsive care for good development. (For more on baby needs, see Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Babies.)

3. Secure Attachment. Attachment is described by Bowlby (1969, p. 194) as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” and represents initial capacities for social relationships. Parental sensitivity is connected to attachment, as a child develops an understanding of relationships from the reliability and sensitivity of the caregiver. Attachment with parents typically forms between 2 and 8 months and helps infants to anticipate and respond to interactions with attachment figures.

The processes and practice of attachment reflect neurobiological development. A securely-attached child has developed social knowhow, with its typical neurobiological underpinnings, whereas a child with insecure attachment has deficits in social emotional knowledge (from lack of emotional support and mutual communication) or in cognitive understanding and trust in social relations (from lack of consistent trustworthy experience). These deficits reflect a neurobiological capacities that are carried forward unless experiences during sensitive periods heal them. For example, insecurely attached infants:often display less positive attitudes over time toward mothers and show more distrust and reliance on self-comforting when reunited with their mothers. They also exhibit high stress levels, measured by cortisol levels whether or not the mother is present (Anhert, Gunnar, Lamb, & Barthel, 2004). This is due to the fact that the infant’s early relationships were very stressful, so the stress-response threshold is very low (i.e., they are stress reactive). Children poor at emotion regulation are more likely to be noncompliant later in infancy and early childhood (Stifter et al., 1999).

Emotion Regulation: Problems in later childhood         

Insecure attachment in infancy can lead to health problems later in childhood. For example, 1/5 preschoolers are overweight/obese and 1/3 of at-risk (i.e. vulnerable to abuse and/or delinquency) children are overweight/obese. At-risk children typically do not have a secure attachment with primary caregivers and they are stress-reactive. 

Examples of early childhood regulation can be seen in the “snack delay” task, where children are put in a room with candy, and are asked not to eat the candy until the experimenter rings a bell (Braungart-Rieker, 2014). In two video examples, Dr. Braungart-Rieker shows different responses to the task: 1) kid eats the candy right as the experimenter leaves the room; 2) little girl reaches for the bell that, if rung by the experimenter, would indicate she had successfully completed the task and earned an extra piece of candy. But she fights the urge, and tries to control her desire to enable instant gratification.

Bottom Line: When parents or other adult caregivers establish a secure attachment with a child through mutually-responsive interactions and sensitivity, the child’s self-control systems are fostered, which can lead to healthy choices and behaviors later.


* Child goes through three testing phases: 1) face-to-face interaction with parent/caregiver; 2) still-face phase, where caregiver has no reaction to/interaction with child, thus a violation of the child’s expectation; and 3) reunion, with typical reactions from parents to child. (Tronick et al., 1978). This task focuses on the second and third steps, first seeing how the child deals with no interaction from his or her caregiver, and then seeing how the child reacts to the parent reverting back to their normal reactive state.


1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

^Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.


What is Child Flourishing?

Happiness and Growth through Play

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

How to Grow a Smart Baby



6 Hidden Myths Behind Baby Sleep Training Advocacy

Child Sleep Training’s “Best Review of Research”

Parents Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports

                  REBUTTAL to critique of "Parents Misled by...Sleep Training Reports"

Dangers of "Crying it Out"

Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make

'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong

Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby

Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development

Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns

Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child

Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance

More Normal Parenting for Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?

Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success

SIDS: Risks and Realities

Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?

Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives


New Moms Need Social Support

Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons

What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?

Jesus Had a Home Birth

What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?


Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?

What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?

Circumcision Ethics and Economics

Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs

Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe


Stand Up For Breastfeeding

Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor

Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments

In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?

Breastfeeding Resources

The REAL Truth about Breastfeeding

5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding

The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding

Myths you probably believe about infant formula

Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong

It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?


Research on Spanking: It's Bad for ALL Kids

What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood

Slings and Heroes

Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments

Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?

Blame the baby or blame the experts?

Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child

How to Grow a Smart Baby

Are you treating your child like a prisoner?

Undercare: The bane of American life?

Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist

Is it good to make kids afraid?

How NOT to Ruin a Child

Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?

Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”

What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.


Childism Revisited

Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself

Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?

Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?

Where Are the Happy Babies?

The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy

How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change

Increase the well-being of children around you


When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)



Julia Braungart-Rieker (2014). Parenting, Attachment, and the Development of Emotion Regulation. Pathways to Child Flourishing Conference, University of Notre Dame. 

Ahnert, L., Gunnar, M. R., Lamb, M. E., & Barthel, M. (2004). Transition to child care: Associations with infant–mother attachment, infant negative emotion, and cortisol elevations. Child development, 75(3), 639-650.

Bowlby, J. (1969), Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Braungart-Rieker, J., Garwood, M.M., Powers, B.P., & Notaro, Paul C. (1998). Infant affect and affect regulation during the still-face paradigm with mothers and fathers: The role of infant characteristics and parental sensitivity. Developmental Psychology, 34(6) 1428-1437.

Braungart-Rieker, J.M., Moore, E.S., Planalp, E.M., & Burke-Lefever, J. (2014). Psychosocial pathways to childhood obesity: A pilot study involving a high risk preschool sample. Eating Behaviors, 528-531.

Braungart-Rieker, Zentall, S., Lickenbrock, D., Ekas, N., Oshio, T., & Planalp, E. (2014). Attachment in the making: Mother and father sensitivity and infants’ responses during the still-face paradigm. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 125, 63-84 

N.V. Ekas, D.M. Lickenbrock, & J.M. Braungart-Rieker. (2013). Developmental trajectories of emotion regulation across infancy: Do age and the social partner influence temporal patterns? Infancy, 18, 1–26.

Stifter, C., Spinrad, T., & Braungart-Rieker, J. (1999). Toward a developmental model of child compliance: The role of emotion regulation in infancy. Child Development, 70(1), 21-32.

Tronick, E., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S., & Brazelton, T. B. (1978). Infants response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 17, 1–13.