Self-Control: What It Means for Kids

By The Understood Team

At a Glance

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

  • It allows kids to slow down and think through their actions.

  • Some kids take longer than others to develop self-control.

Imagine being at someone’s house for dinner and thinking that the food needs a little more salt. You could lean across the table and grab the shaker before anyone else can get it. Or you could wait a minute and ask someone to pass it.

Most adults have the self-control to pause and do what’s right for the situation. They wait for the salt because it’s polite and appropriate. They think before they act in order to have a better result, whether it’s in social settings, out in the community, or at work.

But what about kids? What does self-control mean for them? Learn what self-control really is and why it helps kids thrive in school and everyday life.

What Is Self-Control?

Self-control may seem simple, but it’s really a complex skill. In fact, it’s part of a group of skills that allow kids to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions so they can get things done. (Experts call this executive function.)

There are three types of self-control:

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. And doing well socially improves their self-esteem

Self-control develops over time. It starts building when kids are very young and continues into their twenties.

The older kids get, the better able they are to:

  •  Wait for things they want without throwing tantrums 

  •  Anticipate what might happen if they do—or don’t—say something or take action

  •  Manage their anger or frustration without outbursts

  •  Keep their hands to themselves

  •  Set a goal and make a step-by-step plan for reaching it

  •  Think through how their behavior affects others and make changes based on that thinking.

What Self-Control Looks Like in Kids

Self-control plays out in different ways, depending on the situation and setting kids are in. Here are some examples of what self-control looks like:

  • In class: Kids wait to be called on instead of blurting out answers. They take time to think about what the teacher said.

  • In social groups: Kids handle gentle teasing without bursting into tears. They come up with better ways of reacting.

  • In stores: Kids keep from grabbing something they want off the shelf. They ask if they can see it or touch it.

  • At recess: Kids wait their turn to use the slide instead of cutting in line. They might decide to use the swings instead.

  • At home: Kids don’t interrupt conversations even when they’re dying to say something. They wait until the other person is done talking.

You may not realize that these behaviors require skill, but they do. Without self-control, kids would behave very differently. They might:

  •  Interrupt a lot

  •  Talk nonstop

  •  Speak out of turn

  •  Have a hard time taking turns

  •  Get frustrated easily and give up quickly

  •  Be unable to stand criticism

  •  Continue having outbursts long after other kids have stopped

  •  Be overly active or restless

Why Some Kids Struggle With Self-Control

Kids develop self-control at different rates, and some just take longer than others. Until they catch up, they have a harder time managing behavior than their peers.

But sometimes, kids struggle with self-control because of underlying challenges. A common cause of self-control problems is ADHD. So is trouble with sensory processing.

Stressful events or situations can also create problems with self-control. Kids may act out as a response to what’s going on in their life.

Whatever the reason, having trouble with self-control can be hard on kids. They might feel embarrassed or frustrated that they keep doing things they know they’re not supposed to do. That’s why it’s important to remind your child that with practice, self-control can improve.

Key Takeaways

  • Self-control develops over time.

  • Kids can struggle with emotional, movement, and impulse control.

  • Certain challenges like ADHD can cause problems with self-control.

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