The 3 types of self-control

By Gail Belsky

At a glance

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

  • It lets kids manage their emotions, impulses, and movements.

  • Some kids struggle with self-control even as they get older.

Kids need to be able to manage their thoughts, actions, and feelings. To do that, they need self-control — a skill that lets them put on the brakes and think before they act. 

Self-control is part of a group of skills called executive function. Kids develop these skills over time. There are three types of self-control: impulse control, emotional control, and movement control. 

All kids have moments when they act impulsively or get overly emotional. But for some kids, it’s a frequent problem. They may struggle with one or all types of self-control.

Learn more about the three types of self-control.

Impulse control 

What it means: Impulse control is being able to stop and think before acting. Impulse control lets kids think through consequences before they push to the front of the line or run into the street without looking. A child with self-control can pause, imagine what might happen — I could get in trouble or I could get hurt — and make a different choice. 

But kids who don’t have as much self-control often don’t think first. They may get into trouble a lot at school or at home. It can also be hard for them to make friends, because some other kids might not like their unpredictable behavior.

Without impulse control, kids may:

  • Blurt things out without thinking
  • Act quickly and without thinking things through
  • Act aggressively toward other kids
  • Overreact when upset
  • Interrupt a lot, talk too much, or speak out of turn 
  • Not get started on homework until close to bedtime 
  • Rush through assignments 
  • Follow rules one day but not the next 

Emotional control 

What it means: Emotional control is the ability to manage feelings. As kids get older, most can cope with a minor disappointment or criticism and move on. They don’t get distracted or overwhelmed by their feelings.

But kids who struggle with emotional control might find it hard to get past something upsetting. That’s true even if it’s small, like losing a game or doing poorly on a test. They overreact, and their bad moods may last a long time.

Positive emotions are also hard for some kids to control. They might get overexcited and have trouble calming down from a happy mood. 

Without emotional control, kids may: 

  • Get easily frustrated and give up when things don’t go their way
  • Not handle criticism well
  • Have a hard time calming down to get things done (like homework)
  • Have trouble keeping their cool when someone upsets or annoys them 
  • Overreact to small disappointments or challenges
  • Have very big or loud reactions when upset or happy

Movement control 

What it means: Movement control is the ability to manage how our body moves and when. This type of self-control helps kids sit still when they need to. It helps them stay out of other people’s personal space. Having movement control makes it much easier to do what is asked of them, like sitting through a meal or waiting in line. 

All kids have trouble with movement control at some point. It’s hard to hold still when you’re so full of energy and excitement. But most kids outgrow that restlessness over time. If a child continues to struggle with movement control, it could be a sign of hyperactivity

Without movement control, kids may: 

  • Be overly active or restless 
  • Fidget or play with hands
  • Have trouble sitting still or staying in line
  • Disrupt games and conversations with their movements
  • Run and shout even when asked to stop
  • Stand up and walk around while the teacher is talking
  • Move so fast they run into people or things

When kids struggle with self-control, it’s important for families and teachers to share what they’re seeing at home and at school. Learn more about helping kids gain self-control

Key takeaways

  • Self-control is part of a group of skills called executive function. 

  • There are three kinds of self-control: emotional, movement, and impulse control.

  • Kids can struggle with one or more type of self-control.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who has served as an evaluator and consultant in public schools for nearly 20 years.