What causes trouble with self-control?

By Kate Kelly

Kids can struggle with self-control for lots of reasons. Some kids take longer than others to develop self-control. So it’s sometimes a matter of catching up — especially when kids are young for their grade.

But trouble with self-control isn’t always just a matter of catching up. It can be a sign of the frustration and anxiety that come with struggling in school. ADHD can also cause challenges with self-control.

And sometimes what looks like a lack of self-control is actually a lack of social skills. It’s hard for kids to follow social rules if they don’t know when they’re breaking them.

With the right support, kids can improve their self-control. Learn more about what can cause trouble with self-control, and how to help.

ADHD and self-control

What it is: A common condition that makes it hard to focus. It can also cause trouble with impulse control, organization, and other skills called executive functions.

The self-control connection: ADHD affects the brain’s ability to “hit the brakes” and think through consequences before doing something. So kids may do or say something before they’ve had a chance to consider their options. ADHD can also make it hard to manage emotions.

Fidgeting, interrupting, and trouble taking turns can be signs of ADHD, too. 

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Learning differences and self-control

What they are: Trouble with reading, writing, or math. Kids who struggle in these areas are as smart as their classmates but are often misunderstood. Others may think kids are not trying hard enough or that they can’t improve their skills.

The self-control connection: Kids with learning differences often get frustrated when they don’t do well at something, even when they’re trying really hard. It’s also common for them to feel anxious about school. That can lead them to quickly give up on homework and tests.

Kids may break pencils, crumple up homework, or refuse to go to school. What looks like lack of self-control could be a sign that kids are feeling overwhelmed by school.

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Sensory processing issues and self-control

What it is: Difficulty handling sensations like sights, sounds, flavors, smells, and textures. Kids with sensory processing issues may also have trouble knowing when they feel full, hungry, thirsty, hot, or cold. It can affect how kids move, too.

The self-control connection: Kids might try to run away from situations that are overwhelming. They might refuse to wear certain clothes or try new foods. Or they might have a sensory meltdown they can’t control.

Some kids seek out sensations in ways that annoy other people (like tapping them or pacing around the room). Or they might pull back from a hug or erupt in anger after getting bumped into.

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Trouble with social skills and self-control

What it is: Difficulty understanding social cues like body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Some kids may have trouble communicating in ways that are appropriate for a situation.

The self-control connection: It’s hard to follow social rules when you don’t understand them or don’t notice that you’re breaking them. Kids who struggle with social skills might stand too close to people, cut in line, or ask too many questions. They might talk a lot or have trouble “reading the room” and taking part in conversations.

Other kids might get fixated on a topic or idea and have trouble moving on to something new.

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Trouble with motor skills and self-control

What it is: Motor skills help people make physical movements. Gross motor skills involve large muscles in the arms, legs, and torso. Fine motor skills involve small muscles in the hands and wrists.

The self-control connection: Trouble with motor skills makes it hard to move gracefully. Kids may drop things or bump into or push people. In some cases they might speak too loudly.

These difficulties are often misunderstood. Others may think kids are being disruptive on purpose.

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No matter what’s causing the trouble with self-control, there are ways to help. Families and educators can work together to understand why kids are struggling. Start by sharing notes on what you’re seeing. Talk together about strategies to try at school and at home.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Mark J. Griffin, PhD was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.