Dealing with difficult emotions is hard for young children.
Self-control and regulation are key skills to facilitate in young children, as failure to develop sufficient self-control can have a lasting impact.
When children lack the ability to facilitate self-control, it can make them more prone to poor emotional outcomes and affect their long-term happiness (Augimeri, Walsh, Donato, Blackman, & Piquero, 2018).
To facilitate a child’s development and ability to cope with difficult situations, it is important to introduce self-control strategies through play and interactive activities.
This article defines self-control in kids and provides techniques to facilitate self-control in young children. Several worksheets and games are also provided to help children practice self-control techniques.
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Self-Control: A Definition for Kids
Before understanding the meaning of self-control, first we need to understand the meaning of the ‘self.’ The ‘self’ specifies that it is the individual themselves, rather than another person.
Although ‘control’ can be associated with a child who willingly complies with directives from adults, the ability to truly self-regulate is autonomous and self-initiated (Duckworth, Szabo-Gendler, & Gross, 2014).
One of the central models in the self-control literature is the ego depletion model. The ego depletion model suggests that self-control relies on a limited energy source, and every attempt to harness self-control results in a depletion of that energy.
However, the process model emphasizes that response tendencies that develop over time and our emotional responses are partly determined by which situations we select from a range of options (Augimeri et al., 2018).
The process model also emphasizes that emotions fundamentally involve valuation, which is a determination of what is good for someone versus what is bad for them. A valuation system comprises four parts, which are broken down below (Ford & Gross, 2018):
- Exposure to the world
Changes to external and internal factors in the person’s environment.
- Perception of the world
How an individual perceives what is happening and what it looks like to them.
- Evaluation of the world
Whether their perception of the world is good or bad.
- Desired state of the world
The individual’s desire to engage in action based on their perception of the world and desired state of the world.
This model emphasizes that self-control is a multi-step process that can go through several cycles and iterations.
It is important for children to have the space to develop their perception of the world around them and understand how their desires coincide. It is also important for them to understand how to cope when these two constructs do not align and healthily balance their emotional responses.
Why Is Self-Control Important?
Several research studies have examined the impact of self-control.
The ability of children to control their impulses is a key factor in long-term success. One of the most widely known studies followed children for over five decades (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Raskoff-Zeiss, 1972).
The original study put a marshmallow in front of preschool-aged children and told them if they waited 20 minutes, then they would get a bigger snack (Mischel, 2014). Sixty-seven percent (67%) of the children could not resist, which indicated a lower level of self-control. After the test, the children were followed for over five decades, tracking how the ability to exercise self-control correlated with various life outcomes.
Children who resisted had higher SAT scores, educational attainment, sense of self-worthiness, and ability to cope with stress (Mischel et al., 1972).
Young children who have poor self-regulation skills tend to have poorer health and behavior outcomes. The years between ages 6 and 12 are considered a key time for intervention and prevention, as this age group is considered to be the most responsive to self-control strategies (Howell, Lipsey, & Wilson, 2014).
Below, we will provide you with strategies to help facilitate self-control in kids of all ages.
4 Techniques for Fostering Self-Control
Since self-control needs to be centered on planning, it is important for parents and caregivers to provide consistency in a child’s environment to support self-control strategies.
Below, we have included strategies to assist you in helping your child practice maintaining and facilitating self-control (adapted from DeWall, 2014).
1. Provide a soothing area where children can calm down and focus
Getting children to take small breaks when they are completing work or during activities is a good way to foster self-control. Having a special place in their bedroom or another part of the house where they can do this is a good way to redirect them when they are feeling overwhelmed.
When you sense your child is overwhelmed with emotions or they are acting out, telling them to ‘go to their special place’ and engage in soothing strategies is a great method to help with redirection. Letting children decorate their space and providing them with calm-down strategies, such as journaling, drawing, and deep breathing, are good ways of getting them to embrace the space as a place of peace.
2. Help children to understand the impact of their decisions
Since children who lack self-control often decide in the moment, helping them understand how their actions impact others is a key part of facilitating regulation. This activity, called Ups and Downs, helps introduce children to weighing the positives and negatives of every decision they make.
This worksheet on Making Good Decisions allows for older children to reflect on what decisions they have made. It gives children the opportunity to write down their best decisions and rationalize what has made them good. The activity also invites children to categorize their worst decisions and reflect on the motivations behind them.
3. Give children reasonable choices whenever possible
Everyone has to complete tasks they do not want to complete. No matter what, children will not like every option they are given. Instead of giving children a hard “yes” or “no” response when they ask questions, try to give them a little bit of choice so they feel like they are in control of an aspect of the decision.
If children can have control over an aspect of what is happening, they will feel more secure about what is happening.
For instance, if your child struggles with eating and does not always like the meals you prepare, instead of giving them an ultimatum about food or always giving in to their demands, give them options so they can participate in part of the decision.
For example, if you are making chicken and vegetables, you can give the child two options about preparing the chicken or ask which vegetables they would prefer. That way, children can still exert a bit of control over the situation and take ownership over themselves.
4. Give kids opportunities to learn about self-control through play
Several games can be integrated into lessons about self-control that do not require a lot of equipment. Simple games such as Red Light/Green Light, Simon Says, and Freeze Tag are excellent at introducing children to the concept of stopping and thinking about their next move.
In addition, giving children a journal to write down their thoughts, instead of letting them out in more negative ways, is a beneficial strategy to help them regulate. Giving children the opportunity to make the journal their own (i.e., not limiting the entries to writing) and encouraging them to draw pictures or write poetry or stories about what they are experiencing also creates a valuable creative outlet to help children self-regulate.
Below we have included more fun games and exercises children can use to learn about self-control.
3 Fun Games and Exercises
Providing activities and games that children can enjoy is an important part of teaching emotional regulation skills.
These exercises seek to provide children with easy-to-complete activities that are fun and also facilitate learning and awareness so they can better understand their emotions.
A difficult part of self-regulation is knowing what to say in specific situations, as children often get overwhelmed by their emotions. This activity entitled Think It or Say It is an opportunity for children to work with others or individually to determine whether different statements should be said or kept to themselves. Educators can also use this as an activity in class when children are learning about appropriate social behavior.
This worksheet called Inside and Outside is an outline of a body. When children are feeling out of control, they are invited to label their thoughts, bodily sensations, and actions. This exercise allows children to compare how they think, feel, and behave when struggling with emotions. They can then understand the emotions that cause them to lose self-control and prepare for the reactions that accompany those feelings.
Deep breathing is a key strategy that everyone can learn and implement when engaging in self-control. Follow the Shapes is a fun activity to introduce children to deep breathing. It guides them through deep breathing using shapes, guiding the rhythm of their breathing. This is also an excellent resource for teachers, as they can use this in health and physical education to help teach their students deep-breathing techniques.
6 Helpful Worksheets
In addition to games to facilitate self-control through play, there are several worksheets to help children be more aware of self-control. These worksheets aim to help children understand what self-control is and also become more aware of emotions and situations that might lead them to lose control of their feelings.
When engaging in self-control strategies, being aware of what situations and emotions cause a lack of control is one of the first steps. If children can pinpoint situations that cause them to lose self-control, they can be more aware of these triggers in the future.
This Self-Control Spotting activity has several behaviors listed, and children have to sort whether these behaviors show self-control or are the opposite of self-control.
Similarly, Out of Control or In Control lists different reactions kids may have that indicate if they are approaching feeling out of control. There is also a column to categorize the reaction as being both an out-of-control and in-control emotion. This activity is good for children to keep and refer to so they can identify reactions that lead to out-of-control behavior.
Anger and frustration are central emotions that cause an individual to lose control. Anger is an important emotion in childhood because if it remains uncontrolled, it can lead to problems. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the reasons underlying the anger behaviors of children during this period and how they should be raised as individuals who can manage their anger (Mertoglu, 2018).
These activities, called My Anger Bubbles and What Makes Me Blow Up, give children the opportunity to list or name the things that upset them. Allowing children to identify the things that make them angry will make it easier for them to understand why they are angry and know that it is okay to feel angry in specific situations, but it is their reactions that need to be further examined.
Helping children identify the situations they can and cannot control is imperative in promoting self-control. Self-awareness includes the awareness of who you are, as well as the recognition of your potential. Having strong self-awareness means that the individual is aware of the potential they have and can therefore help themselves (Zuhro, Sukartiningsih, & Bachri, 2018).
Both of these worksheets, the Self-Awareness Worksheet for Older Children and I Can/Can’t Control, aim to engage children in getting to know themselves better. In addition, they look to raise their self-awareness of what they can and cannot control. That way, they can put situations aside if they cannot control them and focus more on their reactions.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
There are numerous tools available for adults to help improve their own self-control. We also have several resources for helping professionals to learn strategies to further assist children they work with in developing self-control. Often, being able to exert self-control and model effective techniques is the best way to help teach children self-control strategies.
Our workshop on Realizing Resilience is a six-module training template that aims to help individuals become more resilient in their daily lives. Resilience is the ability to deal with life’s challenges productively.
Exerting self-control can also be a challenging experience for adults. Even though adults may be more aware of healthy self-control practices, doing further exercises that remind you of exerting self-control can be beneficial to increase your threshold.
Both of these exercises below are from the Positive Psychology Toolkit:
17 Positive Psychology Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Self-control is a tough concept to facilitate in young children. Helping children understand the importance of self-control requires not only a great deal of patience, but also persistence and consistency in your approach.
Whether you are a caregiver, teacher, therapist, or other helping professional, we hope this article provides you with a variety of resources to teach self-control techniques.
The best way to teach desirable behavior is through modeling, so make sure you are also making use of the resources offered in this article.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Augimeri, L. K., Walsh, M., Donato, A., Blackman, A., & Piquero, A. R. (2018). SNAP (Stop Now And Plan): Helping children improve their self-control and externalizing behavior problems. Journal of Criminal Justice, 56, 43–49.
- DeWall, N. (2014). Self-control: Teaching students about their greatest inner strength. Psychology Teacher Network. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2014/12/self-control
- Duckworth, A. L., Szabo-Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Self-control in school-age children. Educational Psychologist, 49(3), 199–217.
- Ford, B. Q., & Gross, J. J. (2018). Emotion regulation: Why beliefs matter. Canadian Psychology, 59(1), 1–14.
- Howell, J. C., Lipsey, M. W., & Wilson, J. J. (2014). A handbook for evidence-based juvenile systems. Lexington Books.
- Mertoglu, M. (2018). Importance of anger management in preschool childhood. International Journal of Education and Practice, 6(4), 200–205.
- Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: Why self-control is the engine of success. Little, Brown Spark.
- Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff-Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204–218.
- Zuhro, Z., Sukartiningsih, M., & Bachri, B. (2018). Influence of habituation on self-awareness and prosocial behavior in 4-5-year-old children. In 1st International Conference on Education Innovation (ICEI 2017) (pp. 386–389). Atlantis Press.