As a parent, watching your child throw a tantrum in the middle of a busy mall can cause you to despair with humiliation and hopelessly admit to yourself: “My child has zero self control – they’re never going to change!”. But as hopeless as it might seem in the moment they throw tantrums, curse in public or eat a family pack of candy bars, every child can learn self control, and at 10 years old it is certainly not too late to start.
So what can you do to teach your young son self control? Introducing willpower techniques and strategies in his daily life can be a great start. In order for your son to practice self control, his home life and routine needs to be structured in a way that will help him form better habits and keep his willpower in check the next time he feels tempted to cuss or throw a tantrum. But it’s important to note that learning self control is a continual process as children grow up.
At 10 years old, your son may be entering (or maybe yet to begin) puberty, and this will directly affect his self control skills as changes in the brain occur and a new batch of hormones start to affect his moods and impulses. Don’t let the tidal wave of puberty put you off teaching self control though! Read through our guide on how to introduce your son to effective self control methods in every area of his life and how he can better understand his emotions…
What Does My 10 Year Old Understand About Self Control?
By age 10, your son has already begun to learn that bad behavior has consequences from his time in school and that if he doesn’t control his actions, he will be punished. If he is throwing frequent tantrums or showing a lack of impulse control at home however, he fails to recognize that home and school have the same system of behavior and consequence. Ask him to imagine how he’d feel if a teacher discovered him having a tantrum or his school friends – would he feel embarrassed? Might he feel closer to a baby than a soon to be teenager? Make him understand that it’s always important to think before we act to avoid this kind of embarrassment.
At this age, your son will also start to have a better understanding of his feelings, but may not have the means to put those feelings into perspective and ‘step back’ from his situation. Let him know that it isn’t the situation that really upsets or angers them, it is how he reacts to that situation that matters. Next time your son feels he is losing control and he feels rage building into a tantrum, encourage him to walk away from whatever is bothering him or to take a few minutes to pause and think – is this worth having an outburst over? When he does walk away, praise him as this will encourage him to use these self control skills in future.
Helping your son understand the importance of self control now sets him on a positive path for his entire life and, as research shows, can benefit his attitude and performance in school – leading to a brighter academic future.
Areas Where Kids Need Self Control
Teaching your child self control is about more than just stopping tantrums in their tracks. Your son may demonstrate a lack of self control in a particular area of his life, such as cursing in public, demanding treats before dinner or spending his allowance too quickly and expecting more. Whatever his main triggers are when it comes to his lack of impulse control (perhaps it is ALL of the following), you can address them with specific methods and techniques. Here’s how to combat each of these problem areas in your son’s life:
Treats – Your son needs to know that eating 12 cookies in one sitting isn’t bad for him simply because “Mom says so”, but because it is impacting his body, his energy and his overall health. Reminding him of the dangers to his health and the unpleasant outcomes of too much candy and treats (i.e. more visits to the dentist!) will start to instill stronger willpower in him and help him practice self discipline next time he finds himself craving more than his daily allowance of treats.
Gifts – If your son is always asking for the latest toy and expresses annoyance at having to wait until his birthday or Christmas in order to get what he wants, help him practice his delayed gratification skills with the ‘Marshmallow test’. The marshmallow test is the widely used study in self control created back in the early 1960’s by psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel’s test involves presenting young kids with one marshmallow and being told that if they wait 15 minutes without eating it, they will be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Kids who ‘passed’ the test and waited for the reward were followed up by researchers as they grew older and the findings revealed that these patient children had:
- Higher SAT scores
- Better emotional coping skills
- Higher rates of educational achievement
- Lower rates of addiction
While the marshmallow method may be too lame for your 10 year old, the same principle of delayed gratification can apply to their scenario of being greedy versus waiting patiently before receiving a material possession. Help them to delay gratification by only receiving their gift on a special occasion i.e birthday, good report card, completing a month’s chores etc. They could also save up their allowance to put money towards this much-wanted gift themselves.
Cursing – many of us curse as adults, but it is inappropriate to let your 10 year old hear you swearing on a regular basis, so the first step to teaching them self discipline for their own swearing is to be a better role model. Remind him to call you out on it too to level the playing field e.g. “Yes, Mommy sometimes uses that word, so tell me ‘No’ when I do. Remind me that it’s a bad word”.
Aside from simply repeating bad words he hears, your son may swear in anger or frustration, so try reminding him that swearing will not make the situation better, only add an ‘extra’ consequence. The next time he swears at his sibling or at the prospect of doing chores, make him consider how damaging and hurtful his cursing can be by introducing an extra chore to his list or confiscating his phone or game each time he swears.
TV/screen time – 10 year old’s have been surrounded by screens and on demand entertainment their whole lives – they have never known anything different! It’s therefore more important than ever to not only regulate their screen time, but help them regulate how much screen time they have themselves. Child psychologist Ashley Soderlund recommends putting the power in your son’s hands by giving him ‘screen time tokens’ that could represent time slots of screen time throughout the day. For example, one token could represent one episode of his favorite show and another could represent 2 or 3 levels of a video game. How they are used is up to him, but once they are both used up, that’s his screen time for the day.
As well as helping him manage his own screen time more healthily, Ashley recommends starting a screen-free day once a week to demonstrate to your son there are other ways of having fun and mixing it up with screen and non-screen activities: “Get into the habit of playing outside before dinner. A soccer game with Dad in the garden or a family bike ride.”
Tantrums -Tantrums can be triggered by all of the above factors, but tantrums can happen without your child understanding why they happen. Tantrums can be a result of your son struggling to communicate his needs in a rational way and this may be down to the following issues:
- Anxiety – tantrums are thrown to avoid a certain situation or addressing
- ADHD – struggle to calm down and view situations rationally, so emotions boil over into a tantrum
- Autism – kids with autism are often overstimulated, so tantrums may be caused by exposure to loud, bright environments.
If tantrums happen regularly with no obvious trigger concerning things like treats, screen time etc, be sure to speak to your local pediatrician to get a formal diagnosis. Your son’s tantrum may reveal an underlying issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible in order to pursue practicing self control in a way that suits him.
Teaching Self Discipline vs Yelling and Punishment
Teaching self control isn’t a matter of yelling “NO!” or “STOP!” at your son until he gets the message, because in the long run, this will only cause him to continue his pattern of bad behavior. As tempting as it may be to yell at your 10 year old for disobeying you again, your response is ineffective and won’t help them learn self discipline. Your parenting style directly affects how your son will develop his self control, so be more mindful of how you handle his misbehavior whenever he gets out of control.
Clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington, Laura S. Kastner, has developed an approach known as “Wise minded parenting” which teaches parents and guardians to change their emotional response to misbehavior. Kastner urges “we should not meet our kids emotional activity with our own emotional reactivity, which often comes out as criticism or ‘lectures’. By quelling our own emotions, we can think from a broad perspective about what is possible to control when dealing with a distressed, hormonal or immature child, and decide on skillful approaches to problem-solving.”
So what “wise minded parenting” techniques should you try? Kastner offers some sample parenting situations below and the right and wrong ways to respond:
Son: I’ll do my homework later. I’m going skateboarding with Jason now.
BAD response – Dad: You care more about skateboarding lately than your grades. Do you want to fail at school?
‘Wise minded’ response – Dad: Sorry to be lame, but we’ve agreed that you do your homework before dinner. Don’t ruin your routine now, buddy. You were doing so well. If you’re feeling bored, why not help lay the table? That would really help us out.
Dad knows that the wise minded response avoids further conflict by reminding his son of his faults (which will never cause his son to cooperate). Instead, dad avoids an argument by politely asking his son to do something productive before play, such as his homework or helping prepare dinner.
Son: You have to buy me new Nike shoes for soccer. I’ll look like a loser if you don’t. You’re so cheap – you don’t care about me!
BAD response – Mom: You don’t deserve new shoes with an attitude like that. You’re a brat!
Wise minded response – Mom: These new shoes are a big deal for you, aren’t they? You think you need Nike shoes to do well at soccer? How are you feeling about soccer lately?
In her wise minded response, Mom recognizes that her son’s obsession with brand shoes is irrational and bratty, but turns the request for ‘new stuff’ back on him by gently asking him questions that go deeper than the shoes. Mom encourages her son to share what is really stressing him out deep down. Once she has that answer, then she can move on to making a point about budgets and how irrelevant expensive brand shoes are to his soccer ability.
Misreading Self Control with Self Motivation
If your son would rather spend more time on his video games or phone than hunker down and finish his homework, it may not always be the case that he has no self control to pull himself away from his distracting gaming screens, but that he lacks the actual motivation to do the homework.
According to an extensive study into the effects of frequent self regulation, engaging in self control for the sake of it can cause what Psychologist Michael Inzlicht calls “self control fatigue”. In other words, if your son comes to see doing homework as a necessary and unavoidable chore, he begins to retreat further into the distractions around him, thus repeating a vicious cycle of unproductive behavior and a lack of engagement with his school studies and future grades.
To help your 10 year old regain his motivation and enjoyment in certain tasks, help him reframe boring ‘must do’ tasks like homework (or housework) and help him turn them into ‘want to do’ activities. Your son may feel encouraged to complete his homework with a friend, so you could turn homework time into a play date. You could also use learning apps and online educational games together to help him complete certain tasks and questions. Switching up his usual homework routine is the key. You can find other great ways to kick-start their homework motivation here.
Mike Zhang. Founder of FamilyLifeShare