As parents there are lots of things that we may want to teach our children, but one of the greatest gifts or skills we can give to our children is self-control.  For Christians, self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the spirit, along with virtues like patience, kindness, goodness, but it’s probably also the virtue that is the hardest to teach.

How do you teach self-control?  How can you show children what it looks like?

Obviously it helps if parents can model self-control, but I think it is also possible for children to learn this skill even if one or more of their parents may be lacking in it.  My daughter actually taught me a great lesson in self-control.  I said something that was a little negative and she told me off and said, “Mum you don’t say that.  You just keep it inside your head.”  And she went on to explain to me that if you want to say something, but you think it might hurt the other person’s feelings, you just keep that thought inside your head and you don’t say it.”  I thought that was quite a good explanation of self-control from a five year old.  Of course, the next step is learning to think less negatively so you don’t have to internally correct yourself all the time.  (But that’s another whole topic!)

Of course self-control isn’t just about what we say, it’s also a skill that kids need to learn so they don’t throw tantrums, or hit other kids, or so they can overcome their distaste for a task which they may not want to do.   All these things take time to learn.  Even as adults we can’t always get it right.

But at least children have more of an excuse when they lose the plot.  Developmentally, you can’t expect young children to exhibit the same ability to control their emotions and behaviour as adults do.  When we’re born as babies we have zero self-control.  Babies function purely on instinct and it’s only in the toddler years that parents have to start teaching those skills of self-control.  Interestingly, brain research is showing that the neural pathways that children need to control their primal instincts are being forged when they’re very young.  And those connections develop when a distressed child is comforted.  So, when a baby is upset, their carer comforts them and the body produces the right hormones and chemicals to help them calm down.  Then gradually as the child gets older, they learn to soothe themselves.

So if you want your child to be calm and self-controlled, you actually have to calm them down when they’re little, so they learn to do it themselves as they grow older.

The best way to do that is with your physical presence – holding them close, patting them, soothing them and speaking reassuring words.  It sounds so simple, but when a young child looses control, comforting them and helping them get back in control of their emotions will be more effective than just dishing out a punishment.

However if a child is really struggling in this area, there may be other factors to consider. 

In kids that have frequent outbursts of aggression, there may be a medical cause behind it.   But like us, kids are also affected by physical needs that can influence their mood.

–       Are they overtired, cold or hungry?

–       Could their blood sugar be low? That can cause mood swings in some children.  Include some low GI carbohydrates in their diet.  Protein is also important in mood regulation.

–       Consider artificial colours, food chemicals and additives.  If a child becomes suddenly negative, anxious, aggressive or emotional, it may be a response to artificial colours, flavour enhancers and even natural food chemicals. Simply taking those things out of the diet can make a huge difference.  (See Sue Dengate:  Fed Up with Children’s Behaviour)

I just wanted to mention those things briefly because we can’t expect children to be self-controlled if their basic physical needs aren’t being taken care of first.  It’s funny.  Just tonight my daughter had a big wobbly at bedtime.  It came after a big weekend.  She sang in an eisteddfod on Saturday, we were out all day on Sunday and had a late night at church on Sunday night.  By the time I finally got her into bed tonight, we were all feeling frazzled.  I don’t feel I can hold her too responsible for her behaviour when she was probably hugely overtired.  We all have our limits.

Do you have any ideas on how to teach self-control to kids?  Do you find it easy to be self-controlled when dealing with your own children?