THE BLOG
01/19/2016 04:23 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2017

Helping Kids Conserve Their Self-Control

From the time children are small, parents help them to develop self-control. Rightly so, we see this skill as necessary for success in life. Regulating their emotions and impulses allows kids to avoid getting in trouble at school and to behave well during religious services, birthday parties, visits to grandma's house, and play dates. So we guide them to: "wait your turn," "use your inside voice," "don't peek," "use your words, not your fists," and "choose one cookie." Kids who exercise good self-control are more appealing, get more positive feedback, and feel best about themselves.

But what about when they have trouble resisting temptations and impulses? Like most parents, at times you've probably thought, "My son is capable of controlling himself, so why doesn't he?" or "My daughter is doing this just to push my buttons." It's easy to see lack of self-discipline as a bad personality trait. But research suggests self-control is actually a resource that fluctuates over time.

In one study, cigarette smokers who were previously asked to resist sweets were more likely to smoke during a break than subjects who merely resisted raw vegetables. Similarly, dieters who had to withstand readily available, tempting snacks weren't as self-controlled afterward. And it wasn't just using self-control for food that affected them. Even asking dieters to suppress their emotional reactions during a movie depleted their self-control resources to the point that later on they couldn't resist snacks.

What You May Be Seeing at Home -- and Why

Ever wonder why teachers, coaches, and friends' parents describe your kids as polite, mature, and well behaved -- but once they're home they're, well, not quite so lovely? Studies show that the ability to exert self-control and resist temptation decreases gradually throughout the day.

Kids use up a great deal of this resource just to get through school. For seven or eight hours, they have to withstand urges to chat with friends during class, daydream during lessons, give up on hard assignments, and lash out those who annoy them. Then, because they're already tired, it is even harder for them to muster self-discipline for after-school practices, tutoring, rehearsals, auditions, and lessons. Is it any wonder that when they finally get home they're sometimes impatient, snarky, or uncooperative? (It's not you!)

Much like our cars' gas tanks, children's self-discipline is not unlimited; when it's depleted, they have to refuel.

Do your kids often "lose it" when tired and hungry, much like they did during toddlerhood, when you couldn't leave home without snacks? That's because self-control -- even coping with stress during the school day -- requires blood glucose. When self-control drains blood glucose to below optimal levels, self-control becomes impossible. And so do your kids -- until you feed them and they perk back up.

How to Help Kids

Based on research, these five ideas may help children conserve their self-control resources:

1. Build in down time. Make sure your children get a respite from situations that require self-control, especially later in the day when their reserves are likely to be running low. Make sure they get to regroup after school by doing mindless or relaxing activities of their choosing, such as resting or running around and playing, before starting their homework.

2. Schedule mindfully. Instead of expecting kids to exert self-discipline continuously, anticipate their need to replenish throughout the day. If they've got a day full of family activities -- for example, religious services, celebratory events, and visits with relatives -- remember that as the day progresses their self-control is likely to steadily decrease. For everyone's benefit, plan accordingly!

3. Remind kids of their goals. One of the best strategies to boost self-discipline is remembering goals. (Please note: this works best when they're kids' own goals.) Playing well in their recital, for example, requires self-control to practice even when they don't feel like it. Getting in shape for sports tryouts means not skipping workouts. They are more likely to earn better grades if they resist procrastination.

4. Avoid situations that drain self-control. Research shows that successful people are not necessarily better at resisting temptations, but they think ahead to minimize distracting or tempting situations. Help kids to figure out in advance how to conserve their self-discipline so they can succeed.

5. Model self-care. Realize that self-control is also a limited resource for adults and be mindful of your own reserves. If you've had a stressful or frustrating day that involved managing unpleasant interactions, holding your tongue, or forcing yourself to do boring or difficult tasks, take a few minutes to decompress before dealing with kids. When you let them know you're doing this so you can be more patient and loving with them, you're modeling a great strategy they can use to refill their own self-control tanks.