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Teaching Self-Control to Teens

Teen talking to an adult

​​When a 2-year-old throws a tantrum, she relies on her parents to soothe her and teach her that tantrums are unacceptable. But when a teen loses control, society is not always so forgiving. We hold teenagers to a higher standard of self-control and expect them to calm themselves down.

One of the most important skills you can teach your daughter or son is self-control. It is a survival skill. Adults who can master their own emotions and responses often enjoy successful professional and personal relationships. 

Ironically, learning self-control often grows out of conflict. So the next time you find yourself locking horns with your teen, take consolation in the fact that it's a perfect teaching moment.

Children must learn that negative, aggressive and dishonest behaviors are unacceptable. They will model their behavior after your behavior. If you become agitated and angry while talking with or disciplining your teen, he or she will do the same. Eventually, the exchange will escalate into a painful argument that ends only when either you or your teen walks out. 
If your teen responds to your efforts to correct his or her behavior by "blowing up" and refusing to do what you ask, then you need to teach self-control.

In teaching self-control, parents must help their children  identify their feelings and  learn appropriate ways to deal with these feelings.

Parental Guidance to Teaching Self-Control

Calming Down : In this step, both you and your teen take a "time-out" to let your emotions settle down. 

  1. Describe the problem behavior.
    • In a calm voice,  briefly tell your teen what he is doing wrong. For example, "John, you are yelling at me." 
    • Be clear and specific. Do not use vague or judgmental statements, and don't resort to name-calling.  
    • Use empathy, which shows your teen that you really do care about his feelings. Use statements like, "I understand that you are upset."
  2. Give clear instructions
    • Tell your teen exactly what he needs to do to begin calming down. For example, "Take a few deep breaths and try to calm down."
    • Keep your words to a minimum. Resist the urge to repeat yourself. Teenagers interpret this as nagging.
  3. Allow time to calm down and remain calm yourself. (This is the most important step. By remaining calm yourself, your teen will calm down faster.)
    • Give your teen permission to leave the situation in order to calm down.
    • Time alone gives your teen an opportunity to decide if he wants to continue his inappropriate behavior or calm down.
    • Periodically check in with your teen, asking questions like, "Can we talk about what happened?"

Follow-up Teaching : Begin this step only when your teen can respond to your request to talk in a calm voice.

  1. Describe what your teen could do differently next time. This step helps you teach your teen how to substitute appropriate behaviors for inappropriate ones.
    • Use "instead of" phrases like, "Instead of slamming the door, please tell me you are angry and ask if you can go to your room to calm down."
    • Ask your teen to talk with you about what triggered his anger.
  2. Have your teen practice what he or she can do next time. (Now that your teen knows what to do, he has to learn how to do it.)
    • Role-play, acting out a potentially volatile situation. Let your teen demonstrate how he should respond.
    • Offer your teen feedback, stating what he did correctly and what needs improvement.
  3. Give a consequence: This is critical because consequences are what help change behaviors.
    • An appropriate negative consequence lets your teen know he cannot lose control when he does not get his way.

It is often difficu​lt to remain cool and calm in an emotional situation like an argument. But it is very important to use a soft tone of voice, show empathy toward your teen and avoid any type of physical exchange. It is also important not to let your teen sidetrack the discussion into an argument about issues that are not related to the immediate issue. For example, if your teen has missed his curfew, that is the only issue you should address. Don't let your teen draw you into an argument about how unfair he thinks his curfew is compared to his friends' curfews.

Your teen will not learn self-control overnight. As you teach, look for small, positive changes over time, and praise your teen when he makes progress. Congratulate yourself for breaking the argument cycle, which can harm the relationship you have with your child.