Thoughtful Parenting: How to foster self-control
Three significant factors play into a child’s impulsivity profile: temperament, executive functioning and development. Impulsivity is the tendency to act without forethought and self-control is the ability to subdue or override impulses, resist distractions, manage actions, plan ahead and delay gratification to achieve goals. Self-control develops over the years with major changes occurring between age 3 and 7.
Does a child’s self-control predict self-discipline, happiness or success later in life? Researchers have found that kids with poor self-control are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior and experience anxiety and depression. Kids with advanced self-control skills tend to develop better academic skills over time.
A study of young kids in China, South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S. reported kids with stronger self-control skills had bigger vocabularies, better math test scores and better early literacy skills. Kids with better self-control grow up to become more competent, more confident and happier. On average, they score 200 points higher on their SATs.
Behavioral geneticists have discovered links between certain genes and impulsive behavior. Attention issues seem to be highly heritable. But while self-control is made possible by the developing brain, children learn emotional and behavioral regulation from their environment, parents, teachers and peers. Simply because there is a genetic basis for a trait doesn’t mean it can’t be modified.
Kids with low impulse control have trouble thinking before acting. Impulsive behavior looks different in every child, but kids with impulsivity issues tend to get in trouble frequently, not get invited to play dates and lose friends. Often, they’re labeled as bad kids.
Typical behaviors of kids who struggle with impulse control include the following.
• Doing silly or inappropriate things for attention.
• Having trouble following rules.
• Acting aggressively towards other kids.
• Grabbing or pushing.
• Overreacting to frustration or disappointment.
• Wanting the first turn and last word.
• Not understanding the impact of their words or actions.
• Doing risky or unsafe things.
Some kids get in trouble without understanding why, and some keep making the same mistake over and over again.
How can parents foster self-control?
• Play games that encourage self-control. Red light, green light and the freeze game are examples of games kids love to play that simultaneously strengthen self-control. Once they get good, change the rules to enhance the difficulty (red means go, green means stop).
• Use frequent, timely reminders. Make it easier for kids to be successful by repeating the rules or directions before each task. Remind them about the expectations.
• Change the situation. Reduce temptation to minimize effort. This could mean creating assigned seating, shifting schedules, allowing fewer toys out at once, putting away electronic devices, or setting a timer to accomplish a task. Letting kids participate in strategizing helps them think about and choose circumstances that encourage good behavior.
• Give kids a break. If you ask people to complete two tasks in row, both of which require a high degree of self-control, their performance on the second task is usually worse. Self-control involves focused energy and gets used up during the day. Kids learn faster when lessons are short and separated by downtime. Use breaks for kids to re-charge and reflect.
• Enforce limits. Kids learn self-control through consequences. An appropriate loss of privileges helps them learn that self-control is the best choice. A study found that kids whose parents agreed with statements like “I ignore my child’s bad behavior” and “I give in to my child when she causes a commotion” were more likely to exhibit poor self-control skills.
Deirdre Pepin is the resource development and public relations coordinator at Horizons Specialized Services. For more information about children birth through age 3, their development or behavior, contact Lindsey Garey the Horizons Early Intervention coordinator at 970.871.8558 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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