Some people think that if I can just be “strong” (have enough determination or self-discipline) I won’t eat that chocolate cake and I will be able to lose weight. Or I will get my taxes started instead of turning on the TV or I will put away my phone and go to bed on time.

Self-control is the capacity to inhibit our impulses because we can think clearly enough to compare the value of an immediate reward (the chocolate cake) versus a long term gain (like losing weight or feeling better). Self-control also involves using our thinking brain to compare immediate rewards to long term costs. (If I hit my little brother, I will end up in time out.) I often hear parents wondering out loud about why their child repeats a certain behavior that leads to a high cost outcome for the child (isolated in another room away from family due to misbehavior) or fails to get the child a reward they seek  (not going to the park due to failure to get ready).

In these cases, we fail to recognize some basic facts about how brains and bodies work.

Both children and adults can only assert self-control when the neocortex – the reasoning, logical part of the brain is online. If a person is intensely stressed, that thinking part of the brain becomes less active. The emotions center and the fight/flight/freeze parts of the brain become more active and reasoning becomes difficult or impossible. When aroused by stress and intense emotions, our brain cannot do the task of comparing the value of immediate rewards with long term outcomes. We can’t “think” our way into controlling our impulses.

In order for children (and adults) to apply self-control, they must first be able to manage their internal states of activation. We need to be able to notice we are stressed and that our thinking brain is not available. We must learn how to reduce our levels of internal stress. Until that task is learned and can be accomplished, we don’t have access to the thinking part of our brain to apply control of our impulses.

Sadly, we often mistakenly try methods that actually increase rather than help decrease a child’s stress level. When children don’t display self-control we might find ourselves correcting, directing, lecturing, threatening and punishing. These approaches do not decrease stress and do not help a child get their thinking brain back up and running. In fact, when children misbehave, often as a result of internal or external stress, parents themselves may increase their stress levels and end up modeling stress activation rather than teaching methods of de-escalation that might help a child correct his or her behavior. We might end up increasing our child’s stress and their reaction to that increase (yelling, throwing, hitting) might then up our own stress level again. You can see where this goes.

The foundation of helping a child develop self-control is to teach self-regulation – the ability to recognize when we are getting stressed and take steps to calm our internal state so our thinking brain will become available. It is necessary for parents to be able to recognize and address their own stress levels in order to teach children these important skills.

What do you do to decrease your stress level? And can you tell us about some ways you have you taught your child to do the same?

To learn more about self-regulation, sign up for our next webinar, “Self-Regulation: Helping Kids Calm Down and Cooperate.”