The need for self-control can feel like a tease at times and a bit of a pity, but its influence is spectacularly powerful. A landmark study conducted over three decades has found that the level of self-control children have as five-year olds, is one of the greatest predictors of their health, wealth and success as adults. Knowing how to increase self-control in children can help them on a path that sees them thrive.
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a New Zealand study, has received international praise for the treasure trove of data that has emerged out of it. Researchers followed 1000 children from when they were born to the age of 32. Children who had higher levels of self-control at age five were more likely as adults to be healthier, wealthier, and less likely to have an addiction or a criminal conviction.
A little bit about the study. (Because it’s fascinating.)
The research has given us remarkable insight into the behaviours and qualities in childhood that will influence the course of a child’s life. The effect of self-control was profound.
By the time the children were adults, children with the lowest self-control (compared to children with the highest self-control) were more likely to:
- have multiple health problems (27% compared to 11% of their less impulsive peers);
- earn a low income of less than $20,000 per year (32% compared with 10%);
- have a criminal record (43% compared to 13%).
- have an addiction to multiple substances (10% compared to 3%).
And then there are marshmallows.
The findings on self-control from the Dunedin study are in line with the famous Stanford marshmallow study – an ingenious little test of self-control that was put to a group of 4-year olds in the late 1960s.
One by one, the children were told they could eat one marshmallow right away, or wait for fifteen minutes and have two. Fifteen minutes is like forever in four year old time, but as all small children know, two is infinitely better than one when it comes to delicious things. They tried all sorts of tricks to stop themselves from eating the marshmallow before the fifteen minutes was up. The most successful children distracted themselves – they looked away, played with something else, talked quietly to themselves, sang, and made up games with their hands and feet. Some even tried to fall asleep.
Follow-up studies over the course of their lives revealed that the children who were able to avoid temptation were healthier, had greater success at school and then in their careers, and had stronger relationships.
So tell me, exactly what is self-control?
Self control is about being able to manage behaviours and emotions to get to a longer-term goal. This means delaying gratification, controlling impulses, pushing through frustration, persevering with a challenge, waiting patiently for their turn, and controlling emotional outbursts. Most children seem to master self-control by the time they are ten-years old.
Why does it matter?
Children who lack self-control don’t lack intelligence. People who are impulsive and quick to take risks have wonderful strengths. They are often the ones who become our adventurers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, or inventors. They can also land themselves in a lot of trouble.
Self-control feeds directly into decision-making. A shortage of self-control during childhood might lead to a bit too much fun food at the party, more time gaming than homeworking, or a few too many tantrums. In the short term, the fallout from these decisions might seem fairly benign. Nobody’s world ever has ever fallen apart from a belly-full of cake on a Sunday afternoon. During adolescence though, the consequences of poor decisions and a lack of self-control, could be disastrous, both in the short and long term.
Adolescents who lack self-control are more likely to make decisions that close down opportunities and set them on a path to a more harmful lifestyle. These include decisions around their health (drinking, smoking, diet, sleep), money (gambling, irresponsible spending, choosing play over work) and behaviour (relationships, work, study, addiction, sex, leaving school early, unplanned pregnancy).
Adolescence is a time of massive brain change, designed to support their preparation for adulthood. Part of this readying involves experimentation and taking risks. Teens are wired to do this. It’s how they learn the skills they will need as adults, and how they find out where they fit into the world, where there edges are and the incredible things they’re capable of. Risk-taking is a healthy, normal part of adolescence, but teens with higher self-control are more able to calculate the risks and tell the difference between a dangerous risk and one that they can learn from and grow through. Self-control during adolescence is crucial, not only to keep them safe but also to steer their developing brains in the right direction.
The brain changes according to the experiences it is exposed to. When it is exposed to good experiences it will thrive. When it is exposed to less nourishing experiences, it will wire accordingly. During childhood, we can influence the experiences that our children are exposed to. We read to them, play with them and guide them towards safe experimentation with the world.
When adolescence hits, the experiences our children expose themselves to will largely be out of our hands. This is where they start to discover who they are and where they fit into the world. Their level of self-control at this stage is critical. It will play a huge part in driving their decisions, their experiences and the way their brain develops as they move into adulthood. Self-control in childhood, sets up self-control in adolescence, which sets up a brain for life.
Can self-control be changed?
Yes. Absolutely! In the Dunedin study about 7% of children showed dramatic increases in self-control over the duration of the study. These changes happened without any formal intervention. This is great news. As the important adult in your child’s life, you are in prime position to bolster their potential for health and happiness in adulthood by strengthening their capacity for self-control.
Building Self-Control in Children. Let’s talk about how.
Children aren’t born with self-control (though it would be excellent if they were – evolution, you listening?) Learning self-control takes time. It’s not all about willpower, but about learning strategies to make a situation work for them. Here are some powerful things you can do to nurture the development of self-control.
Create opportunities for them to take the initiative.
Provide opportunities in which they have to decide whether to exercise self-control or give in to temptation. A great opportunity to do this is with pocket money. (Self-control and money – who couldn’t do with a little more of that!) Suggest to your kiddos that when they save a certain amount of money, you will boost this by adding to their savings. Immediate feedback always sparks motivation, so make a visual chart or tally so they can see how they’re travelling.
Keep their environment as stress-free as possible.
Self-control comes from the frontal cortex of the brain, which provides the brakes for the impulsive, instinctive behaviours that are driven by the back of the brain. Stress effects the frontal cortex, effectively disabling the mental brakes. This is why when children are tired, overscheduled, upset or anxious, they might ‘lose it’. What they’ve lost is the calming, steadying hand of the frontal cortex to gently soothe any out-of-control responses. The more stressed they are, the less self-control they will have.
If you know they’re going to find themselves in a situation that could potentially test their self-control, help them make a plan while they are calm. If you’re heading to the shops, for example, and you can see that there could be a battle ahead for both of you, talk to them about this before you head out. ‘You might see special things that you really want, but we’re not buying any toys or treats today, okay? I know you’ll make really great decisions. Maybe if you see something you can come home and put it on your ‘cool things I’d like’ list, and we can talk about ways to save up for it.’ They will be much more likely to commit to a decision or a plan when they are calm, then when they discover the toy version of true and everlasting love in aisle three.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t always go to plan. Part of being a child means it won’t.
Children are experimenting with independence of thought and will. This is a great thing (though not so great if you’re on the wrong end of it!). As long as the boundary is in place, don’t worry if they don’t always hit the mark. The brain changes with repeated exposure to experiences. The more situations they are put in where they have to practice self-control, the more they will be strengthening it.
What would your future self say?
Any time you can slow them down enough to engage them in thinking about the future, they are strengthening the part of the brain that handbrakes impulsive behaviour. Encourage them to think about the different possible outcomes for their choices. ‘I know you don’t feel like doing any study – I wish study could be loads more fun – but your test is in two days. What will it mean for you next week if you don’t hit your books?’
Another option is to start thinking about their ‘future self’. ‘Imagine there is a grown up version of you – your future self. Your future self depends on the decisions you make now. What would your future self would want you to do. Why?’
Chores – so much more than getting the job done.
There is so much that kids will learn from doing chores. Having fun is important, but sometimes you have to get the tough stuff out of the way first. Self-control means having what it takes to put the fun things on hold for a little while until the must-do’s are out of the way. Having a few chores gives the opportunities they need to experiment with this. Let them be paid for some of their chores, and let some be their expected contribution to the household. Have another list of chores as a way to earn extra money if they need it. When they want to save up for something, they can decide – lots of smaller, easier, lower-paying jobs, or a bigger, more difficult, higher-paying one. Now they have their very own business! Entrepeneurs selling their very precious time and their very valuable skills.
Boundaries provide opportunities to learn how to self-regulate. If there are no boundaries, it is almost impossible for them to tell when they need to hit the self-control button. It’s important that they know where the edges are.
Teach them how to distract themselves.
Waiting for what you want can be so tough! Provide opportunities to practice strategies for waiting, but be realistic about the length of the wait. Young children tend to think more about what they want because they like the way it makes them feel. The more they think about it though, the more their capacity for self-control is stretched. It’s also stretched if they can actually see whatever it is they’re trying to hold out for. While they are waiting, teach them how to take their mind and their eyes off whatever they are waiting for. Try something like, ‘It’s hard waiting isn’t it. Let’s water the garden while we’re waiting for the cookies to bake.’ ‘Let’s go for a walk and think of some funny jokes while we’re waiting.’
Nurture their self-awareness.
The more self-awareness your child has, the more control they have over their behaviour. Help them to understand the things that tend to short-circuit their capacity for self-control. Explore what happens just before they make impulsive decisions. Are they tired? Stressed? Hungry? Bored? Anxious? The more awareness they have, the more they can navigate around the things that tend to skittle their capacity for self-control.
Encourage a regular mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that gets involved in problem-solving, planning, resisting impulses – all of which are an important part of self-control. Mindfulness can strengthen self-control by building their capacity to let thoughts and feelings come and go without acting on them.
Sometimes, self-control means an almighty push against a habit. Games that provide kids with opportunities to practice this, have been proven to strengthen self-control. Here are some games that were found to increase self-control when they were played twice a week for thirty minutes each.
• The Freeze Game:
Turn up the music and dance! When the music stops, everyone has to freeze. Dance slow to slow songs and fast to fast songs. When your kiddos get the hang of this, swap the rules – dance fast to slow songs and slow to fast songs.
• Sleeping, sleeping – all the children are sleeping.
In this game there’s a song that sends small humans to pretend sleep, ‘Sleeping, sleeping, all the children are sleeping.’ When they are pretending to be fast asleep, say, ‘And when they woke up – they were [lions]!’ This is their cue to wake and pretend to be whatever animal you have named. Let them choose which animal next. As part of this, they have to learn to calm themselves from super-excited to pretend sleep.
• Conducting an orchestra.
Each child has a musical instrument and the adult has a baton. When you wave the baton, the orchestra plays. When you put the baton down, everyone has to stop, shhh. When the baton is moving fast, they play fast, and when it’s slow, they play slow. Then, flip the rules. Stop playing when the baton is waving, start when it’s down. Play fast when the baton is slow, and slow when it’s fast. Oh so confusing – but so good!
And finally …
All children will get frustrated and impulsive from time to time. This is all part of them growing up and finding their place in the world. Self-control is built over time, and there’s no hurry for them to become experts. It is a quality that can be strengthened, whatever their age. Building small humans into healthy, capable, bigger ones takes time. The important thing is to provide the opportunities that will nurture them along beautifully, and guide them to be the remarkable humans they are all capable of being.
You might also like …
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.