HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Teaching older kids self-control

How to help tweens and teens think before acting (and resist those marshmallows!).

By GreatSchools Staff

Ever heard of the marshmallow test?

Here’s how it works: Tell kids they can have one marshmallow now — or wait and have two in 15 minutes. (Cookies work too!) 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 tweens or teens are the “I want the marshmallow now!” type, don’t worry. The news is still encouraging: Older children can learn ways to improve their self-discipline skills. Keep in mind that a person’s ability to control impulses can take years to develop. In fact, neuroscientists tell us the prefrontal cortex — the “higher reasoning” part of the brain that controls everything from reasoning to empathy — usually kicks into high gear starting at puberty until it's fully developed around the early twenties.

While their brains are busily working on impulse control, you can also offer ways to help your children rein in challenging emotions and behavior. For you and them, the payoff is enormous. Tweens and teens who learn to put off leisure until finishing their responsibilities, remain calm in demanding situations, and stop themselves before doing something harmful to themselves and others have a greater chance of doing well in school and at home. They also have an important set of skills to become a successful adult.

Lay out expectations

Some tweens and teens react badly because they don’t know what to expect in some situations or, just as important, what will be expected of them. So try to fill kids in ahead of time if they need to wait for something or be asked to do a difficult task: “This Saturday I’d like you to help us clean out the garage. This should take until about noon. But after that, you’ll have the rest of the day free.”

Give them the words

Giving voice to behavioral and emotional outbursts can help older children be more in control. What’s more, articulating what they’re feeling teaches them to recognize difficult feelings before unwisely acting on them: “You seemed unhappy when your friends didn’t invite you to go swimming with them. That must have felt pretty bad.”

Comments from readers

"I loved this article it actually gives you some great examples of how these techniques are effective. Very informative! "