How Self-Control Develops

ZerotoThree.org, an organization that focuses on development in the first three years of life, found that 56% of parents they surveyed in 2016 believed that their toddlers had the ability to resist doing something they were told not to do before the age of three. And, of those, 18% believed that children had this ability by only six months of age. Let me be clear in saying that it’s impossible for an infant or a young toddler to habitually exercise self-control. Their brains are incapable of this feat. So, let’s talk about it.

Self-Regulation versus Self-Control

Before we launch too far into this piece, I need to make a distinction for your understanding. As I’ve noted before, self-regulation and self-control are two very different things. Dr. Stuart Shanker of Psychology Today explains,

There is a profound difference between self-regulation and self-control. Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation, reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary. The reason lies deep inside the brain.

In this piece, I’ll be talking about both.

Birth to Twelve Months

Newborn and very young infants have not yet discovered that they exist apart from their parents. They have no concept of self-control during this phase. They simply communicate their needs and wants in the only ways they know how. During this time, young infants begin to build self-regulation skills through co-regulation with their caregivers.

The development of self-regulation starts young. Very young. As part of an intensive report prepared for several federal agencies back in 1991, researchers conducted an extensive literature review of studies on infant attachment. The goal of the overall project was to critique the literature review, identify research gaps, and build a consensus for an interdisciplinary research agenda, one that has influenced our understanding of infant brain development over the past 30 years. One clear outcome emerged from the literature. Secure attachment results in “ego resiliency,” which is our adaptability to stressors. It is the capacity that allows us to resist lashing out emotionally under stress. And, it all starts at birth.

By the seven month mark, infants begin to realize that they are separate from their caregivers. This early skill is necessary several years down the road when young children begin recognize that other people have emotions. Starting from about seven months, infants also begin to understand that they can control the movements of their bodies and their personalities start to emerge. This is a time of problem solving and much motor development.

At the end of the first year, most babies can understand a wide range of vocabulary and make some speech sounds themselves. They can typically move themselves around their space and recognize basic boundaries. However, they are still too young to be able to control their impulses without adult assistance.

Twelve to Thirty-Six Months

From twelve to thirty-six months, toddlers are really coming into their own. They might express their wants and needs with a sharp “no” or a jolly “yes.” They’re experiencing independence for the first time and it is thrilling. With independence, though, comes more boundaries. And, toddlers don’t quite get the need for them. At this stage, they don’t have the life experience to recognize cause and effect in a way that older kids do. They’re pretty good with simple guidelines when we remind them, but they may not bring them to mind when they’re about to do something we’d prefer they didn’t. Add to that their lack of impulse control and you have a potential conflict between parent and child. However, resist the desire to punish! Understand that your child is doing the best they can. Check out this post about punishment to understand why it’s problematic.

At this stage, toddlers still don’t have reliable self-control, though their self-regulation may be coming along very well. This is the perfect time to deploy the Three Rs in earnest. Toddlers understand empathy and need our understanding to work through their emotions. You can also model your process of self-regulation by talking through your own experiences. For instance, if you’re at the store and you find they’re out of something you were hoping to purchase, you might say, “Oh no! They don’t have what I needed. I feel angry. I really wanted that. Ok, let me think. Maybe another store has the same thing. I’m going to finish shopping here and then go somewhere else.”

Thirty-Six Months and Beyond

Older toddlers and preschoolers have a better grasp on boundaries and limits, but they still don’t have access to the level of impulse control they need to exercise self-control consistently. They still need an adult to help guide them. And, there’s evidence that tells us the effort we put into our children now pays dividends in the future.

A 2016 study published in the journal, Social Development, sought to examine associations between parental responsiveness and executive function, which is a key component of self-regulation. The population they chose is notable. They selected 3-5 year old socioeconomically disadvantaged preschoolers, thereby mitigating many of the confounding factors present in other populations. What they found was that “higher parental responsiveness predicted greater gains in both delay inhibition and conflict EF over time.” In short, warm parenting improved the children’s ability to wait (i.e. delayed gratification) and their ability to choose or not choose to do a task based on who is demanding it (e.g. Simon Says).

It may be difficult to believe, but children do not begin to have the ability to exercise self-control until 3 1/2 at the earliest but typically closer to 4. Again, that’s the start of self-control. We cannot expect a child under the age of 4 to be able to resist doing the things we’ve told them not to do without our supervision and support. With this information in hand, it may be easier for us to approach our children with their developmental stage in mind. We might try redirecting them to other activities, giving directions in simple terms, limiting their access to danger zones, and other similar methods to gently enforce limits around them without putting too much pressure on them to do more than they cognitively can.

How to Support the Development of Self-Control

Start first by supporting your child’s natural development of self-regulation. The most straightforward way to do this is by co-regulating, being there physically with your child as they experience emotions and frustrations. Model ways to deal with upset and conflict. Give unlimited affection. Avoid punishments and rewards. And, give your child time to grow. Your exercise of patience is crucial.

Licensed Social Worker, Brandy Wells, offers the following advice on helping children with self-regulation:

1 Rest and Nutrition!
We have all seen how lack of sleep, dehydration, or a hungry stomach can derail a day! If we want to teach kids social-emotional skills, we also need to attend to their rest and nutrition. Sometimes what a tantrum-throwing toddler needs most in the moment is a snack or a nap.

2 Breath[e] in the Fresh Air
Provide opportunities for free play and outdoor play. Let the energy out. Increased heart rate = more blood flow to the brain = more brain power. When my older daughter starts to feel emotionally dysregulated, she often takes a walk in the fresh air. As her body begins to fill with happy hormones, her affect becomes calmer. You can also check out these active games that support self-regulation.

3 Blow Away Troubles
Blowing bubbles is a kid-friendly way to practice deep breathing — and deep breathing calms the body down. Plus, who doesn’t like bubbles?! When you blow bubbles too quickly or too slow, it doesn’t work. You need to breathe from the belly, at a regular tempo. Speaking of deep breathing, yoga is another great way for kids to connect with their bodies and stay focused and calm. Try adding 15 minutes a day or a quick session after a meltdown.

4 Read All About It!
Read books about emotions as a way to discuss all the feelings kids have. I love Todd Parr’s books (including The Feelings Book and It’s Okay To Be Different) and the way he displays an array of feeling vocabulary. In addition, sensory “touch and feel” books can help hold your child’s attention during reading time and stimulate their senses.

5 Listen Up!
Calm music can help settle children down. And fun, simple songs can help children remember self-regulation strategies. Check out these Daniel Tiger songs about anger, taking turns, and waiting.

As you’ve read, self-control comes later, around the age of 4. You can help your child practice self-control by playing games like Red Light, Green Light. Help your child reason through difficult situations, all while empathizing with them in their distress. Give your child opportunities to choose between instant gratification and delayed gratification. For instance, “We can go to the park today and get ice cream tomorrow or we can get ice cream now and go to the park tomorrow. Which would you like to do?” And, of course, provide your child with consistent limits and be willing to negotiate those limits.

Additional Readings for More Effective Parenting

A Single Change Makes All the Difference

Talking Doesn’t Work With My Kid

One Cure for Whining

Three Words That Will Calm Your House

Want to Stop Punishing Your Kids? Here’s How.

Curbing Aggression in Young Kids

We Don’t Really Want to Force Our Kids to Share

Fostering Competent Eating

Gentle Support for Your Resistant Child