HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Teaching young kids self-control

How to help your children think before acting (and resist those marshmallows!).

By GreatSchools Staff

Want to learn more about your children? Then get out the marshmallows.

Here’s how it works: Tell them they can have one marshmallow now — or wait and have two in 15 minutes. According to the famous study first done by psychology professor Walter Mischel 40 years ago (click here for a recreation), children’s ability to wait (or not) says a lot about how well they’ll do in school, with friends, and with family. And, incredibly, waiting for that extra marshmallow can even predict their success as adults — in work and relationships.

If your kids are the “I want the marshmallow now!” type, don’t worry. The news is still good: Learning to control emotions and behavior is a skill that can be taught. In fact, a recent study published by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that teaching self-control techniques to elementary school-age children who had difficulty reining in their emotions and behavior significantly reduced suspensions and other disciplinary problems.

That said, knowing how to think before acting can be especially difficult for very young children. But by helping them practice over and over (and over), parents are providing one of life’s most valuable skills.

Lay out expectations

Some kids react badly because they don’t know what to expect in some situations or what will be expected of them. So fill them in ahead of time if they need to wait for something or be asked to do a difficult task: “We’re going to visit Grandma, and she and I will be talking for a while. Let’s put together a bag of crayons and paper so you won’t be bored.” “My friend and her children are coming to visit. You might need to share some toys, so let’s put away the ones that are really special to you.”

Give them the words

Help children learn to recognize the troubling emotions they’re feeling before having an outburst or tantrum: “Boy, you were really mad when I said you couldn’t have a quarter for the gumball machine.” “You seemed sad when your sister said you’re too little to play with her and her friends.” Also, encourage children to give voice to what they are feeling: “I feel sad when ...” or “I feel frustrated when ... ” You can also help them learn to use self-control phrases (which, in turn, can help them refrain from impulsive, thoughtless behavior) like “May I borrow that?” “It’s OK, I can share with you,” “I’ll wait my turn,” and “I would like it now, but I’ll wait until later.”