Teach them self-control from young

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A CHILD who has learnt self-control will be able to express her emotions, exhibit better social and communications skills, and grow up with the ability to make decisions.

Self-control is something we don’t think about, yet it is an important life skill and its impact is greater than we imagine.

Clinical psychologist Dr Dhanya Pillai of Sprouts in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya, says that self-control will help the child to become a good problem-solver, and help them better navigate their relationships.

“Even in the playground, having self-control will help you have more friends, and play better. I’ve seen kids with poor impulse control; they tend to be bossy and not want to listen to what somebody else wants to do, and always want to be first. These are little things that would definitely affect the child as a whole,” she says.

Why is it important?

While she concedes that most people would learn this skill as they grow up, Dr Dhanya says that some adults still struggle with self-control.

Teaching self-control is somewhat similar to teaching delayed gratification.

In the famous marshmallow test done in the 1960s, four-year-olds were put in a room, one at a time. They had a marshmallow placed in front of them and they were told that they can eat it now, or if they can wait, they would be rewarded with 2 or 3 instead of 1.

One-third of the children did not eat the marshmallow.

“Fifteen years later when they followed up with the kids, they found that those who were able to wait had better SAT (a college admissions test in the US) scores, and high self-esteem.

“Which is not to say that if at four you can’t control yourself, you are doomed for life, but it has an impact,” explains Dr Dhanya.

Since then, many other studies have been conducted which replicate the findings.

“Self-control is about being able to listen, understand, rationalise and be happy with the compromise made,” says Dr Dhanya.

Teaching by age

How do you instil or teach self-control? Dr Dhanya says it isn’t something structured that you teach the child as you would potty training. Parents will need to teach it over time and using teachable moments.

How it is taught also varies according to the child’s age.

Dr Dhanya believes that self-control can be taught from the time they are small and it starts with learning to soothe themselves.

“For example, if they have a fall, don’t run to comfort them immediately. They need to learn that it’s no big deal. They can just get up. At the most, they might show their mum where it hurts and then go back to what they were doing,” she explains.

As they turn into toddlers and learn language and can understand better, then it would be time to explain to them what they have done wrong when they misbehave and even use time-out.

“When they are able to understand what’s happening at four or five, you can try teaching them consciously. You can explain it to them and tell them why it’s wrong and what they can do instead. There will obviously be trial and error here and there, but some kids learn very fast.”

Dr Dhanya suggests that as kids get older, parents can encourage them to talk about how they feel.

“It’s always important to talk about emotions. At 2, they may not have the words or know how to express themselves, so they may be frustrated and show it by hitting others. As they grow up and can explain how they feel, then they should be using words,” says Dr Dhanya.


But, it’s not just about teaching, but also modelling.

“Your child will model you as well. So, if they see you distressed and panicking whenever there is a fall, that’s how they are going to respond as well when they are faced with a similar situation. Compare that with a parent who is calm and says that’s okay, let me have a look, or no big deal when it really is not a big issue,” she adds.

She also suggests parents give the child options instead of just saying no to them.

For example, if you’re in a restaurant waiting for your food and the child gets restless and starts hitting the table or making noise.

“Instead of just telling the child to stop doing that, you could explain to them why they shouldn’t be hitting the table and then give them an option of what they can do.

“Don’t just say stop doing that. You don’t want to be a broken record. The child will think, ‘My mum just says no, so what can I do instead? I’m waiting and I’m bored.’ You might be on your phone or talking to your husband, but what is the child to do?

“So, you could tell them, ‘Don’t do this because other people are trying to have dinner and you’re being noisy, how about drawing or reading instead?’

“This makes them feel empowered because they get to choose. It also helps that you explain why that behaviour is not acceptable,” says Dr Dhanya.

According to her, parents can also use examples in their own life as teaching moments. For example, if they are driving and somebody cuts them off or cuts in dangerously. They can use that example to teach the children that it’s best not to react negatively or chase after that car but to continue driving calmly and that we should all queue when driving and wait our turn.


Teachable moments are great, but for parents who work all day and come home after dark, those moments are few and far between.

With parents spending so little time with their children and the over-exposure to gadgets and technology which offer instant gratification, it can be hard to teach the child.

In addition, some parents would rather not set limits and be the “bad guy” if they seldom see their child.

Nevertheless, Dr Dhanya believes that the child needs to be corrected when they throw a tantrum or misbehave, and there needs to be consistency.

While this is easier if at least one parent is always there, it becomes complicated when the child has multiple people taking care of her.

“It’s a bit tricky especially when you have extended family involved or a domestic helper. Mummy and Daddy might try to do something, to teach their child delayed gratification for example, but having other people looking after the child when the parents aren’t around makes it much trickier. Of course the grandparents want to dote on the child and it’s difficult to explain to them that it is actually not helping the child to give them what they want.

“You may be making the child happy but that’s only in the short-term; what happens in the long-term. The child learns that sometimes when he cries he might get what he wants; and sometimes he might not get it. You’re not helping the child to regulate his emotions.

“Self-control and self-discipline are not easy to teach, but they need to be taught slowly,” she says.


While it gets harder to teach the children self-control as they grow up, Dr Dhanya believes it is never too late.

“I’ve seen kids who are 13 or 14 and a bit out of control in the sense that they don’t want to listen anymore. We need to figure out how they got to this stage. Did they ever have some sort of routine or loving limits? Or was it just love all the way and have they been getting anything they wanted all along?

“It’s going to be hard for anybody if they have been living freely all this while, and now suddenly, there are all sorts of rules. Of course they will rebel.

“While it is better to teach them early, I feel it’s never too late.”

Medical issues

If the child is regularly showing traits of being out of control in any situation, then there might be other issues to consider, for example ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

If the child is already in school, the teacher would be able to tell if the child could have ADHD as teachers see such cases regularly.

“Either, they are always getting up or always disturbing the other students, or talking before the teacher has finished talking, or running to the toilet without asking for permission. Then you would know this child needs a bit extra guidance, some sort of proper behavioural plan at home and in school. Maybe just the teacher correcting him in school isn’t enough. If 20 other kids can sit still and this one child can’t, then the teacher might ask the parents if he behaves this way at home as well.

“If the child has ADHD, impulse control would be that much harder for the child because it is neurological. But still, it is certainly something that can be helped with behaviour management and proper guidance from parents and teachers.”


Self-control and self-discipline are important skills to instil in children. As they get older, these skills will teach them about taking responsibility and being accountable.

“Self-control is one of those things that seems so innate, but I do feel that while it’s innate, it’s also a learned skill. It’s something that you learn and you pick up, you see and observe. Of course, some kids are a little quicker to react than others who might be a lot more laidback and take time to think and learn.

“At the end of the day, parents try their best, set loving limits, try and raise their children by good example, give them options and choices, and don’t always go rescue them. Children learn by their mistakes. Sometimes, just hope that they might fail so that they can learn. Sometimes parents are so caught up with wanting the best for our children that we don’t even give them the opportunity to not do well.”

Dr Dhanya recommends letting children try an activity even if they are not good at it. There’s no harm in their learning that they are mediocre and that it’s okay to be mediocre, that they can’t and probably won’t be excellent at everything.

This way they learn that they might be good at one thing and someone else might be good at something else. This helps with their problem-solving skills and decision-making skills, too.

She believes that one of the most important things that parents need to keep in mind is that they are not their child’s friend.

“You need to set loving limits. Nobody is asking you to be a disciplinarian and rule with an iron fist. But, I feel setting loving limits is very important.

“So, you’re there, you understand, let them confide in you, talk to them, but at the same time young children need to know that there are certain rules and there are boundaries.”