The power of self-control

The need for self-control can feel like a tease at times and a bit of a pity, but its influence is spectacularly powerful. A landmark study conducted over three decades has found that the level of self-control children have as five year olds, is one of the greatest predictors of their future health and success.

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The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study[1] has received international praise for the treasure trove of data that has emerged out of it. Researchers followed 1000 children from when they were born to the age of 32. Children who had higher levels of self-control at age five were more likely to be healthier and wealthier, and less likely to have an addiction or a criminal conviction as adults.

A little bit about the study (because it’s fascinating)

The research has given us remarkable insight into the behaviours and qualities in childhood that will influence the course of a child’s life. The effect of self-control is profound. By the time the children in the study were adults, children with the lowest self-control (compared to children with the highest self-control) were more likely to –

  • have multiple health problems (27 percent compared to 11 percent of their less impulsive peers).
  • earn an income of less than $20,000 per year (32 percent compared with 10 percent).
  • have a criminal record (43 percent compared to 13 percent).
  • have an addiction to multiple substances (10 percent compared to three percent).

So tell me, exactly what is self-control?

Self-control is being able to manage behaviours and emotions to get to a longer-term goal. This means delaying gratification, controlling impulses, pushing through frustration, persevering with a challenge, waiting patiently for your turn, and controlling emotional outbursts. Most children seem to master self-control by the time they are 10 years old.

Why does it matter?

Children who lack self-control don’t lack intelligence. People who are impulsive and quick to take risks have wonderful strengths. They are often the ones who become our adventurers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, and inventors.

They can also land themselves in a lot of trouble. Self-control feeds directly into decision-making. A shortage of self-control during childhood might lead to a bit too much fun food at the party, more time gaming than homework-ing, or a few too many tantrums. In the short term, the fallout from these decisions might seem fairly benign. Nobody’s world has ever fallen apart from a belly full of cake on a Sunday afternoon. During adolescence though, the consequences of poor decisions and a lack of self-control, could be disastrous.

Adolescents who lack self-control are more likely to make decisions that close down opportunities and set them on a path to a more harmful lifestyle. These include decisions around their health (drinking, smoking, diet, sleep), money (gambling, irresponsible spending, choosing play over work) and behaviour (relationships, work, study, addiction, sex). Adolescence is a time of massive brain change, designed to support their preparation for adulthood.

Part of this readying involves experimentation and taking risks. Teens are wired to do this. It’s how they learn the skills they will need as adults, and how they find out where they fit into the world, where the edges are and the incredible things they’re capable of. Teens with higher self-control are better able to calculate risks and tell the difference between a dangerous risk and one that they can learn and grow from.

The brain changes according to the experiences it’s exposed to. When it is exposed to good experiences, it will thrive. When it is exposed to less nourishing experiences, it will wire accordingly. During childhood, we can influence the experiences that our children are exposed to – we read to them, play with them and guide them towards safe experimentation with the world. When adolescence hits, the experiences our children expose themselves to will largely be out of our hands. Self-control in childhood sets up self-control in adolescence, which sets up a brain for life.

Can self-control be changed?

Yes. Absolutely! In the Dunedin study, about seven percent of children showed dramatic increases in self-control over the duration of the study. These changes happened without any formal intervention. This is great news. As one of the important adults in your child’s life, you are in a prime position to bolster their potential for health and happiness in adulthood by strengthening their capacity for self-control.How to nurture self-control Children aren’t born with self-control (though it would be excellent if they were). Learning self-control takes time. It’s not all about will power, but about learning strategies to make a situation work for them.

Powerful things you can do to nurture the development of self-control

1. Create opportunities for them to take initiative

Provide opportunities in which they have to decide whether to exercise self-control or give in to temptation. A great opportunity is with saving money. (Self-control and money – who couldn’t do with a little more of that?) Suggest that when they save a certain amount of money, you will boost this by adding to their savings. Immediate feedback always sparks motivation, so make a visual chart so they can see how they’re doing.

2. Keep their environment as stress-free as possible

Self-control comes from the frontal cortex of the brain, which provides the brakes for the impulsive, instinctive behaviours that are driven by the back of the brain. Stress affects the frontal cortex, effectively disabling the mental brakes. This is why children who are tired, over-scheduled, upset or anxious might ‘lose it’. What they’ve lost is the calming, steadying hand of the frontal cortex to gently soothe any out-of-control responses. The more stressed they are, the less self-control they have.

If you know they’re going to find themselves in a situation that could test their self-control, help them make a plan while they are calm. If you’re heading to the shops, and you can see that their savings plan could be barreled off course, or that there could be a battle ahead for both of you, talk to them about this before you head out. “You might see special things that you really want, but we’re not buying any toys or treats today, okay? I know you’ll make really great decisions. Maybe if you see something you can come home and put it on your ‘cool things I’d like’ list, and we can talk about ways to save up for it.” They will be much more likely to commit to a decision or a plan when they are calm, than when they discover the toy version of true and everlasting love in aisle three. 

3. Don’t worry if it doesn’t always go to plan – part of being a child means it won’t

Children are experimenting with independence of thought and will. This is a great thing (though not so great if you’re on the wrong end of it!). As long as the boundaries are in place, don’t worry if they don’t always hit the mark. The brain changes with repeated exposure to experiences. The more situations they are put in where they have to practise self-control, the more they will strengthen it.

4. What would your future self say?

Any time you can slow children down enough to engage them in thinking about the future, they are strengthening the part of the brain that handbrakes impulsive behaviour. Encourage them to think about the different possible outcomes for their choices. “What will it mean for you next week if you spend all of your money now? What about if you save it?” Another option is to start thinking about their ‘future self’. “Imagine there is a grown-up version of you – your future self. Your future self depends on the decisions you make now. What would your future self want you to do? Why?”

5. Chores – so much more than getting the job done

There is so much that kids will learn from doing chores. Having fun is important, but sometimes you have to get the tough stuff out of the way first. Having a few chores gives the opportunities they need to experiment with this. Let them be paid for some of their chores, and let some be their expected contribution to the household. Have another list of chores as a way to earn extra money if they need it. When they want to save up for something, they can decide – lots of smaller, easier, lower-paying jobs, or a bigger, more difficult, higher-paying one.

6. Set boundaries

Boundaries provide opportunities to learn how to self-regulate. If there are no boundaries, it is almost impossible for kids to tell when they need to hit the self-control button. It’s important they know where the edges are.

7. Teach them how to distract themselves

Waiting for what you want can be tough! Provide opportunities to practise strategies for waiting, but be realistic about the length of the wait. Young children tend to think more about what they want because they like the way it makes them feel. The more they think about it though, the more their capacity for self-control is stretched. It’s also stretched if they can actually see whatever it is they’re trying to hold out for.

While they are waiting, teach them how to take their mind and eyes off whatever they are waiting for. Try something like, “It’s hard waiting, isn’t it. Let’s water the garden while we’re waiting for the cookies to bake.” “Why don’t we go for a walk and think of some funny jokes while we’re waiting.”

8. Nurture their self-awareness

The more self-awareness your child has, the more control they have over their behaviour. Help them to understand the things that tend to short-circuit their capacity for self-control. Explore what happens just before they make impulsive decisions. Are they tired? Stressed? Hungry? Bored? Anxious? The more awareness they have, the more they can navigate around the things that tend to skittle their capacity for self-control.

9. Play games

Sometimes, self-control means an almighty push against a habit. Games that provide opportunities to practise this have been proven to strengthen self-control. Here are games we found worked well when played twice a week for 30 minutes each.[5]

The freeze game

Turn up the music and dance! When the music stops, everyone has to freeze. Dance slow to slow songs and fast to fast songs. When your kiddos get the hang of this, swap the rules – dance fast to slow songs and slow to fast songs.

Sleeping, sleeping, all the children are sleeping

In this game there’s a song that sends small humans to pretend sleep, “Sleeping, sleeping, all the children are sleeping.” When they are pretending to be fast asleep, say, “And when they woke up – they were [lions]!” This is their cue to wake and pretend to be whatever animal you have named. Let them choose which animal is next. As part of this, they have to learn to calm themselves from super-excited to pretend sleep.

Conducting an orchestra

Each child has a musical instrument and the adult has a baton. When you wave the baton, the orchestra plays. When you put the baton down, everyone has to stop – shh. When the baton is moving fast, they play fast, and when it’s slow, they play slow. Then flip the rules. Stop playing when the baton is waving, start when it’s down. Play fast when the baton is slow, and slow when it’s fast.

And finally

All children will get frustrated and impulsive from time to time. This is all part of them growing up and finding their place in the world. Self-control is built over time, and there’s no hurry for them to become experts. It is a quality that can be strengthened, whatever their age. Building small humans into healthy, capable, bigger ones takes time. The important thing is to provide the opportunities that will nurture them along.

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  • Moffitt, T., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R., & Harrington, H. et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693-2698. http -//
  • Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204-218. http -//
  • Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.http -//
  • Schlam, T., Wilson, N., Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2013). Preschoolers’ delay of gratification predicts their body mass 30 years later. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162(1), 90-93.http -//
  • Tominey, S. L., & McClelland, M. M. (2011). Red light, purple light – findings from a randomized trial using circle time games to improve behavioral self-regulation in preschool. Early Education and Development, 22(3), 489-519.

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