Help your teenager develop self-control

Daughter with back to mother and arms crossed in kitchen
Daughter with back to mother and arms crossed in kitchen

Daughter with back to mother and arms crossed in kitchen

Self-control is the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do, even when you don’t want to. You might think of it as discipline or willpower. As adults we practice self-control on a daily basis, it’s a necessary part of being a responsible adult. Some young people are naturally disciplined and others need some parental coaching. But, it’s a behaviour that teenagers can learn.

Self-control has been shown to be a greater indicator of academic success than a student’s IQ. Research shows that students who practice self-control do better at school generally and are happier. It’s behaviour that is worth instilling in your child if you think that they could do with a little help.

Recognising and modeling self-control

Illustrating self-control is an effective way of modelling it with your child. When you’re being disciplined in everyday ways, point it out. For example: 'I know we’re late, but I’m being disciplined by sticking to the speed limit. I could go faster but if I do I run the risk of getting a fine or having an accident. It’s better to be a bit late than take that risk'.

When your child does something that they don’t want to do, congratulate them on showing great self-control. For example: 'I know you’d rather have been having fun today but you showed great self-control by studying and I hope your hard work pays off for you.'

School and homework are good opportunities for your child to learn and practice self-discipline. Help your child develop it by:

  • Providing motivation: 'If you can put in 3 hours to finish your assignment we can go to the skate park this afternoon.'
  • Checking in: Find out what your child needs to do for homework. Help them plan their time and check their progress until they’ve completed it.
  • Coach rather than instruct: If your child procrastinates or wastes time they may need some coaching about how to tackle the set homework or where to get the information.
  • Praise their effort: Doing things we don’t want to do but have to may not be reward enough in itself. 'You finished your assignment. Well done. Let’s see if any of your friends want to go to the skate park too.'

5 Habits of Highly Disciplined People

Susan Johnson, the author of the article ‘5 habits of highly disciplined people’, is quick to point out that self-control isn’t about deprivation, but that it can contribute to happiness. You can help your child learn self-control by helping them adopt these habits:

  • Avoid temptation. Not having to think about being disciplined is the best way to be good at it. If your child doesn’t have access to things that will distract them from what they have to do, they’ll find it easier to maintain self-control.
  • Change your thinking. Being disciplined shouldn’t be about depriving yourself of things but rather as a means to a goal. It’s a positive behaviour that will bring your child rewards, usually through hard work and focus.
  • Practice self care. Disciplined people know how to look after themselves. They make the right choices for themselves. They make healthy lifestyle choices around sleep, diet and exercise. You can support your child in these areas.
  • Make goals and break them down into smaller steps. Sometimes young people are overwhelmed when faced with big challenges. They need help mapping out short, medium and long-term goals. Breaking the workload down into achievable goals will help them feel more in control. Especially when they can see that they are reaching those goals, whatever they are.
  • Go for it! Disciplined people set a goal and go for it! They are confident that they can learn the skills necessary to help them achieve their goals and they are determined to be focused in reaching it. Be willing to support your child and build their self-confidence.

This list may sound obvious to you if you already practice self-control, and it can be frustrating to coach your child if they lack the ability to focus or be disciplined in the things that they have to do. But be patient, and remember that you won’t always be there reminding them about self-control. The key is in the word 'self', it has to come from within.

Page last review by ReachOut Parents Clinical Advisory Group on