Children and Control: Five Tips to Help Children Develop Self-Control

A young girl sits in a row boat alone, holding the ores and smiling.I went to a Mothers Together meeting where a presenter addressed getting your child to be more compliant than defiant. I am going to share some of the information that I found interesting here, as well as some of my own information.

Children want to have control. When they don’t get it they act out. That makes sense. We all want to be in control and find it frustrating when we do not have control. In reality, we have very little control over our lives. We do, however, have control over the choices we make, the way we respond or react to situations and people, and how we spend our time, money, and our talent. Children have not yet developed much of this. It is important for their individuation—their ability to become self-confident individuals, separate from the family—that they begin to develop the ability to make decisions and practice control in their lives.

Here are some suggestions to help children gain more control in their lives.

  1. Have them dress themselves. If they want to wear stripes with polka dots, then let them. The presenter gave us this question to ask ourselves: Will this matter in the next five years? In regards to the clothing choice, no. Chances are that, in five years, the child will be more worried about what he/she wears and will know how to match outfits.  So, if the situation won’t really matter in the next five years, then allow the child to make his/her own choice.
  2. Limit the rules in the home. When children have too many rules, there will be more defiance. Again, more rules equates to more out of control feelings. The rules that are good to have would fall under these categories: safety, health, and morals. For example: when your child is in the car, a car seat or seat belt is necessary. That is a safety rule. When you ask the question: Will this matter in the next five years? The answer is yes!
  3. Allow your child to have feelings. Anger is a valid emotion. It is okay to feel angry, however, you want to teach the child how to respond to the anger, not react to it. It’s not okay for him/her to hit or throw things when he/she is mad. That would be a violation of a moral or a safety rule because that temper will matter in five years and be harder to control. If your child is angry, help him/her to calm down by talking out their feelings. Even saying if he/she needs to calm down, the bedroom is a good place to go relax. When a child is allowed to experience feelings in a healthy way, he/she can then learn to control those feelings.
  4. Point out the positives. If you tell your child three positive things before bedtime—things he or she did or positive things about who they are—they will be more relaxed for sleep and wake up calmer. You want to tell your child how proud you are, how well he or she shared or cleaned up, how well he or she listened, how much you love him/her. It takes ten positives to every one negative, to really sink in and make a difference. Kids generally respond well to positives. Start somewhere—your child is not always doing something bad. You may have to look hard for the positives, in the beginning, but they are there.
  5. Pick a word everyone can use to help in becoming relaxed. In the movie Anger Management the calming word was grousefrabba. When that word was said Adam Sandler’s character worked to become more relaxed. If the family picks the word sugarplums, then that word is said when someone needs to calm down and relax before the situation can continue. This also helps the child to not feel so overwhelmed. The child can also say the word to you, to help you calm down.

In short, parents: allow your feelings to show, but respond to them in a way that models for your child a positive way to manage emotions. Use a calming word for yourself. Ask yourself: Will this matter in five years? When children have more of a sense of control in their own lives, then there will be less defiance and more compliance when you ask something of them.

© Copyright 2011 by Kelly Sanders, MFT, therapist in Rancho Cucamonga, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • M.Speed


    April 28th, 2011 at 7:06 PM

    The “Will it matter in 5 years?” question is a good way to guage and judge whether a particular rule can be compromised on. I’m a proud father of a one year old baby girl and these tips will definitely be of help to me and a lot of other parents I’m sure.

  • Jennifer c

    Jennifer c

    April 29th, 2011 at 4:29 AM

    When I began to relax some of my control over my child that is when she and I were able to develop a much closer and stronger relationship. It was when I stepped out and gave her a little freedom to step in, I think that she felt more like I trusted her and that it was easier for her to come to me when she felt like she needed me.

  • denise


    April 29th, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    if you tell a child not to do something,the child will do his best to do the very same thing! so the best way to go about things would be to treat them as a part of the decision making engine and make them think about things and then show them why one thing is better than the other.they will then be much more inclined to follow what you want them to.

    being hard and rigid will not work with kids!

  • Jacob


    May 8th, 2011 at 7:17 PM

    I love the “will it matter in 5 years”. Heck, most of it won’t matter in 5 months! Even little ones will rebel against authority, especially if they don’t understand it. Too many silly rules are a waste of time and energy.

  • Vickie


    May 8th, 2011 at 7:32 PM

    I agree on the dressing thing. As long as they’re dressed for weather, I don’t care if my kids wear pink and yellow stripes. If it’s not going to kill them, it’s not a problem.

  • Janis


    May 10th, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    Some days my daughter went to kindergarten like she was auditioning to join the circus as a clown LOL. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Anyway, wearing two odd socks comes back into style every so often. ;)

  • Josh


    May 11th, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    @ I used to get my clothes from Colorblind and Things, but now I’m a much more classy and professional dresser. I can second your statement. My wife despaired of me and my fashion choices for years until I gave in and let her choose my clothes. :)

  • Elliot


    May 11th, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    There’s a difference between “Don’t do that” and “If you do that this will happen.” You can tell your daughters not to run going upstairs or you can tell them what will happen if they fall downstairs and bang their heads on the radiator at the bottom. If you’re going to make rules, explain to them on a level they can comprehend the consequences of not following them.

  • Estelle


    May 12th, 2011 at 6:48 PM

    Parents that are overly controlling wind up with the most incompetent kids. You need to give them freedom or else you’re setting them up for failure. It’s okay for kids to get a few cuts and scrapes while they are learning. Those lessons aren’t forgotten as fast as you just saying something.

  • Fraser


    May 12th, 2011 at 8:11 PM

    @Estelle: At the same time, you need to bring them up, and not drag them up kicking and screaming. Kids still need proper guidance from proper parents if they are going to be happy and productive in later life. They need to learn about rules and compliance at home first and at a very young age to prepare them for following rules at school, then in the workplace and social situations and so on.

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