As a child grows, they learn to control their emotions and, hopefully, develop good behaviours. They’ll learn the difference between right and wrong and how to manage their impulses.
Much of this development revolves around self-regulation and self-control. These are often perceived as being the same things but there are profound differences between the two.
What is Self-Control?
Self-control is the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour. You exhibit self-control when you don’t eat the last biscuit in a packet because you know it isn’t good for you. A child shows self-control when they wait until after dinner to get the ice cream out of the freezer.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation on the other hand is the way we manage stress and reduce the impact of strong impulses that generally lead to loss of self-control. On the surface, this comes from understanding the consequences of an action and rationally choosing a certain course of action.
A child will decide not to have a tantrum when they are refused ice cream before dinner because they know that having one will mean they don’t get their treat at all.
The Neuroscience of Self-Regulation and Self-Control
When it comes to the brain, two important areas are involved in self-regulatory and self-controlling behaviours.
The first of these is the limbic system. It’s one of the oldest parts of the brain and is involved in our flight fight response. It’s also the source of strong emotions and impulse behaviour. When the limbic system is in charge, it means that a child is more likely to give in to their impulses, look for a quick fix, or exhibit naughty behaviours such as tantrums.
The other part of the brain that is important is the prefrontal cortex. This lies just behind the forehead and is the part of the brain that deals with logical decision making. This is often also called the learning brain and it has a push-pull relationship with the limbic system.
If the prefrontal cortex is not strong enough to rein in the impulsive behaviour of the limbic system, you end up with a child who is more likely to be disruptive.
We often think that handling a lack of self-control is just about lecturing the child of the consequences of their actions. This generally doesn’t work at the point of the bad behaviour because their limbic system has a physiological armlock on them. Getting angry or lecturing them simply raises their stress levels and makes it difficult for them to counter their behaviour because the limbic system continues to go into overdrive.
You first have to calm the child down and release them from their stressors. All too often parents talk when they should be listening. We look angry when we should be supportive and kind. In other words, we pile on more stress rather than helping to reduce it.
Self-regulation is key to helping a child develop a set of foundational rules that help them manage their emotions and impulses more effectively. Understanding this connection and how it impacts self-control is critical.
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