What is self-control?

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.

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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