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The Do’s and Don’t of Teaching Kids Self Control

Experts tell us that self control is one of the most important virtues kids need to do well in life. Here are some great tips from author Dyan Eybergen on the Do’s and Don’ts of this crucial life skill.

Self-control is a skill that enables a person to discern what is right from wrong. It is the ability to keep emotions from becoming overwhelming, to stay focused, delay impulses and actively problem solve instead of reacting to a situation.

Children begin to exhibit forms of being able to regulate their emotions as early as 12 months, but the process of developing self-control takes years. At 18 months, children start to separate their identity out from their caregivers” they begin to recognize themselves as independent beings. By age two, children can imperceptibly think about consequences to their own behavior. “I wonder if mommy will be upset if I play with her make-up?”,  but won’t necessarily stop misbehaving because of these perceptions. By age four, children begin to understand cause and affect relationships. They become aware of how other people see them and how their actions or behavior affect others.

As they become older, children become better at self-regulation as they learn to moralize and follow rules. They start to foresee and understand the repercussions for breaking the rules and make decisions based on whether or not it is the right thing for them to do.

Parents can help their children develop self-control through the ways they interact with them. It begins when their children are infants through responsive parenting and physical contact and continues throughout their children’s  development by teaching them why their behavior is unacceptable and offering them more appropriate behaviors to replace undesirable ones.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of teaching self-control DON’T: Tell your children they have done something wrong and arbitrarily punish them (lose a privilege like watching TV because of hitting a sibling). In this instance children only come to rely on other’s telling them what to do instead of learning about alternative acceptable behaviors that they can choose for themselves the next time (I will ask mom for help with getting my toy back instead of hitting my sister).

DO: Be flexible. Effective parents are constantly changing and adapting to who their child is. They tailor their parenting to meet the child’s needs. For example: if a 13 year old is not very responsible, a responsive parent would not let that child babysit younger siblings, regardless of his age. They would help their child to learn more responsible behaviors so he can be left alone to babysit, when he is ready.

DON’T: Tell your child you’re not interested in her excuses or explanations for why she has done something wrong. This gives children the message that their feelings are not important. You don’t have to agree with how your child is feeling but you do need to respect that her feelings are real.

DO: Give your children a feelings vocabulary.  Start as early as possible labeling their feelings for them “can see how upset you are”. “I bet that made you feel very angry?”  “I can appreciate how frustrated you must be.”  This way, as children expand their capacity for language they will have words to express themselves instead of acting out. They will also be able to tell how someone else is feeling as a result of their behavior. “I can tell by the look on my Aunts face, she’s angry that I ate the whole bag of chips.”  Perceiving how others are feeling about how they behaved will go a long way in helping children to problem solve.

DON’T: Constantly tell your children what to do. But don’t let them do whatever they want either. Children cannot learn about rules if their environment is so restrictive that they are not allowed to make mistakes they can learn from. Nor can they learn about rules if they have never been taught to follow them.

DO: Set limits, but allow your children input (as they get older) into what those limits might be and the consequences for not adhering to them. Children need lots of practice in making decisions about their behavior and opportunities to see the impact of those decisions from both their successes and their failures.

Dyan Eybergen, a child and adolescent psychiatric nurse, has more than ten years experience working as a therapist and parent educator. Eybergen currently resides in St. Albert, Alberta, with her husband and three sons. Out of the Mouths of Babes is her first book. For more information visit www.childperspectiveparenting.com.

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