A crucial quality in achieving fulfillment and self-confidence is self-control — the ability to tolerate the discomfort of having unmet needs and desires. That ability is determined by brain development, genetics, personality, and upbringing.
The first time infants feel hungry or lonely, they feel discomfort, which turns into distress, which causes them to cry — until an adult responds. After many repetitions of this cycle, infants learn that an adult will respond to their needs.
With some confidence in the world around them, they are then able to handle small delays and “mistakes” that inevitably occur. It is through this combination of feeling secure and facing delays that children develop the ability to self-soothe and distract themselves in the face of unmet needs and desires.
Setting genetics and in-born personality aside, there are three ways in which this development of self-control can falter:
1. Coddling: The adult continues to respond instantly even as the child grows to be a toddler and young child. Without a gradual increase in the child’s autonomy and a delay of gratification, the child does not learn to do things independently and to self-soothe in situations where there is no instant gratification.
2. Dramatic Inconsistency: While small mistakes and delays are healthy, dramatic swings in parental response will make a child feel deeply insecure about the world.
3. Neglect: Children who can’t get much of a response from adults often lose hope and become angry or turn inward.
The attuned parent helps the child develop the capacity to be able to defer gratification and handle frustration. Newborns need to be responded to quickly. But as they become a bit older and particularly when their needs are replaced by mere desires, such as wanting candy rather than needing nourishment, we can start saying “no” and/or expect them to handle waiting or working toward what they want.
As infants become children and then teens, they should be able to handle more time lapse, more disappointment, and more frustration, because their desires are becoming more complex, less necessary, and often something that they should learn to work or save for themselves.
How do we create an environment that best fosters self-regulation?
By gradually increasing our expectations of our children and tolerating our own anxiety of disappointing them when they don’t get what they want. Changes often causes some anxiety. But incremental changes allow children to learn to handle increasing amounts of anxiety, and thereby gain skills, self-control, and realistic confidence in themselves and the world around them.
It is important to be able to say “No.” Yet always being told “No” is discouraging. It is more encouraging to be given appropriate caveats, “Yes, you may have this, but I’d like you to clean your room first/wait until I’m finished doing my work/save money for it and wait until next summer.”
A little deprivation can help children learn to work and wait for what they want. As a result they learn to see that the future is an important part of their reality.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD