Maximixing Teens’ Self-Control
From the time your teens and tweens were small, you’ve probably been working on helping them to develop self-control. After all, the ability to resist temptations and inhibit impulses is what keeps them from smacking playmates, taking what’s not theirs, melting down if they don’t get their way, and giving up when schoolwork is hard. Kids who are in charge of their thoughts, emotional reactions, and behavior do well both in the classroom and on the playground.
At any age, self-control is highly valuable for success. This skill enables kids to withstand short-term gratification so they can achieve long-term goals.
With teens and tweens, however, self-control is often more challenging to exert. As the influx of hormones ratchets up sexual and aggressive impulses, temptations are also multiplying exponentially. Yet self-discipline is more important than ever. Mistakes may be more costly, their consequences sometimes devastating.
Lately, psychologists have been paying a lot of attention to this area. I’ll describe the latest research, which suggests a new way to think about self-control that I believe offers invaluable insights into what you may be seeing at home. But first I’ll summarize some of the better known benefits of self-discipline.
No matter how smart or talented they are, eventually teens learn that achieving their goals requires putting in the time and doing the work, even when—and this is key—they don’t feel like it or would rather veg on their beds, play videogames, text friends, or watch something on Hulu. They resist these sorts of impulses and bad habits that can sabotage their goals by learning to marshal self-discipline. On the other hand, as many teens tell me, those who give in to temptations or allow themselves to procrastinate before buckling down generally don’t do as well.
In social situations, this same skill separates teens who can decline risky invitations, unsafe rides, and illegal substances, despite their momentary appeal, from peers who act on these urges.
People who exercise self-control are better psychologically adjusted, more empathic, and develop more cohesive, less conflict-ridden relationships. They have higher self-esteem and self-acceptance. They’re generally happier and more satisfied with their lives. Note that this isn’t immediate gratification, but rather contentment that comes from achieving goals and being successful in the long run.
Self-Discipline is a Limited Resource
Studies I’ve been reading lately talk about self-control not as a stable trait that teens and tweens either have or don’t have, but rather as a resource that is in constant flux. This means that when kids exert self-control in one or more situations, they may be unable to do so later on. Much like the gas in our cars’ tanks, their self-discipline is not unlimited; when it’s depleted, they have to refuel.
Research bears out this concept. In one study, adult cigarette smokers who earlier resisted sweets were more likely to smoke during a break than subjects who resisted raw vegetables (which presumably required less strength of self-control). Similarly, dieters who had to withstand readily available tempting snacks weren’t as self-controlled later on. Even asking dieters to suppress their emotional reactions during a movie depleted their self-control resources so much that they couldn’t resist snacks afterward.
What You May Be Seeing at Home—and Why
It’s likely you’re seeing significant fluctuations in your teens’ ability to summon self-discipline. Like many parents, you might’ve thought, “I know my son is capable of controlling himself, so why doesn’t he?” or “My daughter is just doing this to push my buttons.” Science offers some pretty helpful explanations.
1. Ever wonder why your teens or tweens’ teachers and friends’ parents describe them as so polite, mature, and well behaved—but once they’re home they instantly regress? Studies show that the ability to exert self-control and resist temptation decreases gradually throughout the day. So by the time kids get home from school or weekend activities, their reserves are depleted. (It’s not you!)
2. Do your teens or tweens often “lose it” when tired and hungry, much like they did during toddlerhood, when you couldn’t leave home unless armed with snacks? It turns out that self-control requires blood glucose. When self-control drains blood glucose to below optimal levels, self-discipline becomes impossible. (And so do your tweens—until eating makes them perk back up.)
3. Do you struggle in the evening to get your teens or tweens to stop procrastinating and start their homework before it gets too late? This is the time of day when many parents feel challenged by seemingly undisciplined kids. But next time you get exasperated, you’ll be much better able to empathize if you take a moment to review the science:
Students have to exert self-control during the whole school day to stay focused, resist distractions, and inhibit reactions and behavior that would get them in trouble. Then, because they’re already tired, their after school sports practices, choir rehearsals, play auditions, and religious classes require even more self-discipline. Although they come home depleted, they still have to try to contain their impatient or snarky comments. Is it any wonder they have trouble resisting “just a quick look” at Snapchat, the photo they were tagged in, or the Netflix video everyone talked about at lunch?
If you’re still having trouble empathizing, try to recall your own experiences with self-control. Think about a time when you had a frustrating day—maybe you had to handle a conflict with diplomacy, hold your tongue when speaking to your boss, or force yourself to complete a boring/difficult/frustrating/meaningless assignment. Then you came home, someone said something, and you overreacted. Most likely, your tank of self-control was reading empty.
So how can you help teens and tweens? Based on the research, here are four ideas to try:
1. Build in down time. Make sure teens and tweens have a respite from situations that require self-control, especially later in the day when their reserves are most likely to be running low. Give them time to rest after school before peppering them with well-meaning questions about their day. Make sure they get to regroup by doing mindless or relaxing activities of their choosing before starting their work.
2. Schedule mindfully. Instead of expecting teens and tweens to exert self-discipline continuously, anticipate that they’ll need times to replenish throughout the day. If you’ve got family activities planned, for example, such as religious services, celebratory events, and visits to grandparents, remember that as the day goes on they’re likely to use up self-control. For everyone’s sakes, plan accordingly!
3. Remind kids to keep goals in mind. One of the best strategies teens and tweens can use to summon up self-discipline is reminding themselves of their goals. (Please note: this has to be their goals.) Playing well in their piano recital, for example, requires the self-control to practical regularly. Getting in shape for basketball means not skipping workouts or cheating with unhealthy foods. Earning good grades will be easier if they do their work earlier in the evening.
4. Help them to maximize self-control. Research shows that successful people are not necessarily better at resisting temptations. But they think ahead to avoid situations that will challenge their self-control—for example, distractions, cravings, and so forth. Just like athletes in training, teens and tweens who know they need all their resources to reach their goals are more likely to use strategies to conserve their self-discipline.