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Recommended reading Self-control Stages: 3 to 5 years

Self-control is about being able to regulate your emotions and desires.

A lack of self-control can get us into trouble in all sorts of ways. Someone lacking self-control finds it hard or near impossible to resist temptation. They’re likely to speak before they think, act on impulse, be unable to wait their turn, and could have a short attention span. There are plenty of good reasons for us to help our tamariki to develop self-control.

Professor Richie Poulton’s findings from the Dunedin Study show that there’s a strong correlation between low levels of childhood self-control and:

  • poor health outcomes
  • substance dependence
  • low socio-economic status
  • financial struggles
  • criminal court convictions
  • parenting difficulties
  • long-term benefit dependences in adulthood.

So, it’s an important ability to learn.

When do we develop self-control?

Self-control develops over the early years. Some of the biggest changes are noticed between the ages of 3 and 7.

To get along in a group or classroom, kids need to pay attention, follow directions, stay motivated and control their impulses.

‘Emotional self-regulation’ or ‘regulation of our emotions’ means responding to daily experiences authentically and in ways that are socially acceptable. Spontaneity of responses requires a delicate balance. Spontaneity is great when it’s appropriate, but if a spontaneous reaction would be inappropriate, the ability to delay that reaction is valuable. The key to self-regulation is knowing how to behave and when. Being able to wait calmly for a reward is the key to self-control.

Having age-appropriate expectations of self-control

It’s normal and expected for a 2-year-old child to have tantrums as they’re learning how to get their needs met in a socially acceptable way. The tantrums would normally decrease in intensity and frequency during the next few years. A 5-year-old who is still having tantrums may be a cause for concern.

If a child is having difficulty with some aspect of self-control, it’s wise to address that particular behaviour sooner rather than later.

Support with modelling self-regulation

The advice found in this Parenting Resource will guide whānau in ways they can help develop self-regulation in their tamariki.

  • The Six principles of effective discipline lay a strong foundation for self-control and self-regulation.
  • The advice in the recommended reading section Thinking about parenting also applies to this topic.

Although the readings below cover a younger age group, the guidelines are still relevant for dealing with 3-year-olds who are challenging. The corresponding session notes will be helpful, too, when discussing any concerns whānau have.

  • Toddler stress: 19–24 months
  • Needing help with emotions: 19–24 months
  • Experiencing emotional challenges: 13–18 months

In general, whānau can help the development of self-control in their tamariki by:

  • building trust through consistency
  • modelling emotional regulation by ‘walking their talk’
  • staying calm and using calming techniques when needed
  • understanding what’s happening for their tamaiti
  • supporting their tamaiti
  • helping them practise self-regulation, which strengthens their ability to do it again
  • using the ‘rākau’ parenting style — being firm, fair and flexible
  • helping their tamaiti with strategies to manage waiting, sharing and turn-taking.

References and further information

  • Psychology Today: Does it matter if your child has self control? by Laura Markham in new window

  • Prof. Richie Poulton: Childhood self-control and inequality

 In this YouTube video Professor Richie Poulton introduces the findings of the Dunedin Study and what it tells us about childhood self-control, behaviour and life outcomes. in new window

  • Child Mind Institute website: How can we help kids with self-regulation?

 Some ideas to help children with self-regulation. in new window

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