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What is self-control?

By Understood Team

At a Glance

  • Self-control is a complex skill that develops over time.

  • Self-control includes controlling impulses, emotions, and physical activity.

  • Common challenges like ADHD can cause self-control problems.

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Self-control is part of a group of skills that allow kids and adults to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions so they can get things done. Experts call this group of skills executive function.

Sitting still, waiting in line, taking turns — we all use self-control in ways that may seem simple. But self-control is a complex skill that develops over time. Kids start building self-control when they’re very young and keep developing it into their 20s.

As kids get older, they develop self-control in three areas:

  • Movement control so kids aren’t constantly moving in inappropriate ways (called hyperactivity)

  • Impulse control so kids put on “mental brakes” and stop and think before doing or saying something

  • Emotional control so kids can keep going even when upsetting or unexpected things happen

Having self-control helps kids in all areas of life. But it’s especially important when it comes to socializing. Being in control of their actions and reactions helps kids fit in and make friends. 

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What trouble with self-control looks like in kids

When kids struggle with self-control, they have a harder time than their peers managing these kinds of behaviors:

  • Having tantrums or outbursts

  • Interrupting friends and blurting out answers in class 

  • Talking nonstop

  • Being overly active or restless

  • Grabbing things instead of asking first

  • Cutting in line and having a hard time taking turns

  • Getting frustrated easily and giving up quickly

  • Bursting into tears in response to gentle teasing 

  • Having trouble listening to criticism 

Common challenges like ADHD can cause self-control problems. Learn about signs of ADHD at different ages .

How to help kids build self-control

Having trouble with self-control can be hard on kids. They may feel embarrassed or frustrated if they keep doing things they know they’re not supposed to do. And they may struggle socially, which can affect their self-esteem.

But there are things families and teachers can do to help kids build self-control so they can thrive in school and in everyday life. 

Get tips on how to help kids build self-control at different ages:

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom