Self-control: how to improve it

Your child lost control again and made your afternoon a nightmare. He got angry because you didn’t want to take him to the beach, and he threw a tantrum.

You argued all afternoon, and you, too, lost control by responding to his crisis with the most classic barrier of communication: you slapped him.

This didn’t help at all; he started crying even louder, and you didn’t know what else to do. Even discussing it with your partner, you couldn’t figure out how to intervene. This deadlock didn’t help either you or your child, so you realized that you need to find a valid alternative.

If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place. In addition to useful strategies for managing your child’s tantrums, here you can also find a solution to educate your child on emotional self-control.

This way, you’ll be able to pursue your parental educational goals, such as promoting your child’s best possible development of skills and talents. Moreover, in the subsequent stages of their growth, like the delicate phase of adolescence, it will be much easier to communicate with them.

So, if your interest is in understanding how to have greater self-control, both for you and your child, keep reading because I’ll explain the mechanism that governs self-control and provide effective strategies to improve it.

1. What self-control is

Let’s get right into what self-control is, so you can better understand what I will propose to help you and your child improve it.

Essentially, in psychology, self-control is considered as the ability of consciousness to inhibit desires and impulses, regulating behavior to achieve a more desirable goal. This mechanism is particularly effective when there is a strong desire to reach a certain objective.

Let me give you an example right away to show you how it works.
Imagine you have a sweet tooth for ice cream; if you are at the beach in July, during scorching heat, you are likely to be tempted to treat yourself to a nice ice cream.

Usually, you would struggle to control this desire, and maybe you would give in to it. However, if you are on a weight loss diet at that time, you are more likely to control the desire much better and not eat that ice cream.

It could also be that the desire is too intense, or your self-control is not very efficient, so you give in a little and maybe get a small cup, or you choose a less creamy flavor. Alternatively, it’s Sunday, and you decide to make an exception to the rule, so you choose to wait a little longer and have that ice cream for dinner.

In any case, the control mechanism you have at your disposal protects you from impulsive behaviors that could take away other opportunities.
Essentially, when faced with a desire, your mind acts to mediate between impulses and reason, employing a mechanism of “self-compensation”: you would like the ice cream right away, but you can reduce the desire or postpone the moment of gratification because you feel compensated by the greater pleasure you will receive in the future (from that same ice cream or the pleasure of having lost weight).

Probably, this awareness will already enable you to employ some basic strategies to better manage your desires. For example, when faced with a tantrum (“I want ice cream now!”), you can make your child reflect on the benefits of changing their behavior (“We’ll have dinner soon, so it’s better not to have ice cream now. If you’re very hungry, I can give you a cookie at most, but after dinner, you can have a big ice cream”).

Of course, I won’t stop here. Now, I will explain the origin of that amazing mental mechanism that is self-control, and you will gain further useful insights.


2. Where self-control originates

Self-control is a delicate yet crucial mechanism for personal development. Using the insightful description given by Daniel Goleman, I will explain the elements involved.

First and foremost, we can say that the human mind consists of two souls: an emotional mind that “feels” and a rational mind that thinks.

As you well know, that ice cream is a strong temptation for your child because one part of his mind is shouting in his ears to go to the ice cream shop and get a huge scoop. Another part of his mind, however, tells him it’s not possible because you won’t allow it at that time, dinner is coming soon, etc.

If the first part wins, the child throws a tantrum; but when the second part prevails, the tantrums are moderated or absent.

Now you understand that in a sense, these two minds influence each other, but it’s not entirely automatic; in fact, these two souls are semi-independent and only partially influence each other.

Usually, reason controls and regulates the effects produced by the emotional mind; however, in some cases, this doesn’t happen. In a child, self-control is more difficult than in an adult, but even in adults, self-control is challenging in certain situations. For example, when passion or emotions intensify, the emotional mind overrides reason, and we become prey to our instincts.

This influence arises from the brain structure of human beings, which I will now describe in simple terms:

  • The emotional centers originate from the most primitive part of the brain, the brainstem.
  • Over time, these centers evolved into a more sophisticated structure, the limbic system, which significantly expanded the range of human emotions compared to other living beings.
  • Additionally, these emotional centers evolved into something more complex, the neocortex, which is our “thinking” brain.

This whole system has allowed human beings to finely regulate their behavior in response to life’s challenges. Thanks to this, humans are not forced to act automatically in the face of threats because they possess a sophisticated self-control system that enables them to devise more effective solutions.

When strong emotions such as fear, love, or anger take over, we act under the control of the limbic system. This allows us to respond promptly to certain threats: if there’s an explosion behind me and I hear a loud noise, an automatic response to flee is much more efficient than a careful rational control.

Among the various brain areas where emotions develop, there is one particularly important: a gland called the amygdala, the seat of emotional memory. It holds memories associated with intense emotions, instantly recalling emotionally similar experiences.

It’s like a switch that turns on in some situations to alert us that certain events we’ve experienced before may happen again. This brain switch can be turned off by the prefrontal cortex.

Specifically, the right prefrontal lobe is responsible for negative emotions (fear, etc.), while the left one suppresses negative emotions, acting like a kind of thermostat.

Let’s take a step further and try to understand the effects derived from controlling this “thermostat” and, most importantly, how it can be activated voluntarily.

3. Why self-control is so important for personal well-being

As explained on this specialized website, it has been estimated that about 40% of all deaths are attributable to poor self-regulation skills. I wasn’t aware of this data, but considering how important self-control is for a person’s well-being, I find it extremely intuitive.

Another interesting aspect mentioned in the research is that negative emotions facilitate the loss of control. Do you realize the significance of this?

On the other hand, this insight allows us to understand that experiencing positive emotions is an effective strategy to dampen negative emotions; it helps to break free from that vicious cycle that feeds the emotional mind at the expense of the rational mind.

Now you’ll realize that responding to your child’s negative emotions and tantrums with equally negative emotions only fuels their lack of self-control. And yours too. In fact, I never suggest acting out of anger to calm a child’s tantrums.

In that interesting scientific article, they also mention the main beneficial effects that a person gains through good self-control:

  • Building healthier relationships with others.
  • A much more satisfying academic career.
  • Better job prospects and opportunities.
  • Reduced risk of mental disorders or deviant behaviors.

Research has found these effects to be of great importance. In simple terms, we can say that self-control has a decisive impact on the effectiveness of mental functioning: the better we self-regulate, the better our minds work.

Improved mental functioning affects all executive functions (learning, language, reading, coordination, etc.); therefore, self-control is a strategic function for promoting a person’s skills and, consequently, their opportunities for personal fulfillment.

Now we can focus on the strategy to adopt to improve it in ourselves and in our children.

4. The most effective strategy to increase self-control

As a parent, your evolutionary “mission” towards your child is to create the best possible conditions for their development. But what is the purpose of their development? It is the integration into society as an adult capable of fully self-determining and pursuing the best possible personal fulfillment.

Of course, it’s not up to you to decide what that will be or which path they should explore, but it is within your power to assist them in this lifelong quest. Several elements contribute to increasing self-control:

Relaxation: This step is undoubtedly useful, but I won’t dwell on it as it is discussed by almost everyone who writes about self-control, as if relaxation were the only way to achieve it. So, relaxation techniques and breath control are good, but I want to give you a few additional elements.

Educating the emotional mind: The most fundamental and essential thing you can do to help your child develop greater self-control in all their activities is to foster a proper understanding of the emotional aspects that affect them. Let’s see how.

It may seem obvious, but telling an angry child that you see they’re angry and imagining how much they’re suffering helps their rational mind to understand an emotion (in this case, anger) that, precisely because it’s entirely natural, tends to elude reason.

When the emotion is understood and becomes the subject of reflection, the ability to control it increases significantly.

Therefore, every time your child experiences an emotionally charged situation (throwing themselves on the floor because they want a new toy, crying because you won’t let them play with their friend, answering back because you’re not doing what they want, etc.), instead of getting scared and transmitting your anxiety or always limiting yourself to firmly disapproving (“No, you can’t!”), all you have to do is give voice to their emotions first (“I know you’re really upset and angry because you want that toy.”) and then to their reasoning (“It’s very nice, and I know you’re passionate about it, but unfortunately it’s very expensive, and we can’t buy it right now.”).

Educating the rational mind: Now we come to the final step of this strategy. Relaxing and mastering emotions are two important phases for managing our instincts, but they may not be sufficient in every situation.
Think about when you have a major concern, for example a work problem. You are an adult, a mature person with a lot of life experience, which makes you more resilient than when you were a child.

Yet, when you face mistreatment from your boss or the mood swings of some clients, you’re full of anger and don’t know how to handle it properly. You often do it inappropriately: towards your child, your partner, friends, etc. but that’s not what you want to do; you’d prefer to go to your boss or that client and give them a piece of your mind, but you can’t.

Inside your mind, there’s a thought that worries you; the worry consumes many resources and gnaws at you. In those situations, you are fixated on the problem, and anxiety keeps feeding itself until your boss/client is gone or you change jobs.

But what if you could strengthen your rational mind? Here’s how you can do it.

The way out is to focus on finding a solution to the problem, rather than solely on the problem itself. Goleman, for example, suggests adopting a critical attitude towards thoughts that generate worry, asking yourself if the assumptions of the problem are plausible or not. Simply asking yourself a few simple questions:

  • My boss says they’ll fire me: I have the most experience and dedication to work in my department/sector; is it really likely that they’ll do it? No, it’s highly unlikely, so I don’t have to fear being fired. From now on, it doesn’t make sense for me to feel threatened about this.
  • However, my boss could overload me with work: that’s true, but I see that they never go beyond a certain limit; so I know that’s how it works, and I make peace with it.
  • Furthermore, my boss never permits me to go on holiday: this weighs heavily on me, so either I find a way to rebel, or I let it go and look for another job as soon as possible.

Now let’s go back to your child. Unlike you, it’s true that they probably have less serious problems, but they certainly have less maturity. Therefore, it’s more challenging for them to adopt such a critical attitude when they are at the mercy of their worries.

However, that doesn’t prevent you from helping them do it. When faced with a problem with a teacher, for example, you can guide them to address their fears in the same way I indicated to you. What can a teacher do to them? How much can they really influence their academic path? What strategies can they use to deal with it?

Self-control is a human function that improves with use; if we use it correctly, it becomes a very important ally for you and your child.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *