How Self-Control Develops

As any parent of a distractible seven-year-old knows, the neural circuits involved in self-control are some of the latest-developing parts of the brain. This important set of abilities is worth the wait, though—as well as some parental effort. Parents can accelerate the development of self-control by encouraging their children to pursue goals that are challenging but not impossible, a moving target that depends on the child’s age and individual abilities.


As any parent of a distractible seven-year-old knows, the neural circuits involved in self-control are some of the latest-developing parts of the brain. This important set of abilities is worth the wait, though—as well as some parental effort.

Parents can accelerate the development of self-control by encouraging their children to pursue goals that are challenging but not impossible, a moving target that depends on the child’s age and individual abilities. For a three-year-old, figuring out how to build an ever-taller block tower might be such a goal. For a ten-year-old, a more ambitious project would be in order, like earning the next belt in martial arts or learning to program a computer.

These goals illustrate the basic principle of combining repeated practice with progressively increasing difficulty. Both characteristics are necessary for improving self-control. The activities are also fun, which allows children to supply their own motivation for learning and makes them more likely to stick with the program. In addition, self-control training in young children seems to be more effective if it doesn’t require them to sit still for a long time.

More generally, good parenting is associated with self-control. Children whose mothers respond sensitively at one year of age show better self-control fourteen months later. A particularly good predictor of later self-control is support for autonomy, the mother’s ability to help her toddler to complete a task as independently as possible, for example by providing suggestions only when the child is stuck. (Fathers don’t tend to get much attention in this sort of research, but an involved father would probably have similar effects.) Maintaining a happy household also improves self-control, as sadness, stress, and loneliness impair self-regulation ability in children and adults.

Self-control develops in stages. The earliest indication of it is seen around ten months of age, when infants become able to select the focus of their attention, rather than having it captured by striking features of their environment. Babies who can focus for a longer time at this age show better self-control later in life. Around the first birthday, babies also show the first signs of cognitive flexibility, occasionally changing strategies when their actions aren’t producing the desired results.

Between the second and third birthday, children become able to stop doing something on command—at least some of the time. (Younger toddlers respond more easily to positive requests than to negative ones, so “Put your hands on your head” may work better than “Don’t touch that.”) Effortful control, the ability to resist impulses and plan actions, improves rapidly until age four and more slowly until age seven. Cognitive flexibility and the capacity to resist and recover from distraction continue to improve throughout childhood and the teenage years.

Boys lag girls in the development of self-control. In effortful control, like remembering not to run near the pool, 84% of boys perform worse than the average girl, according to an analysis of multiple studies of children from three months to thirteen years of age. Part of the explanation may be that brain development is slower in boys, with the frontal cortex maturing about a year earlier in girls.

Self-control depends on areas in the front of the brain that are not completely finished until the mid-twenties. The prefrontal cortex manages goal-directed behavior, and the anterior cingulate cortex is involved in detecting errors and resolving conflict between alternatives. When the prefrontal cortex is damaged, patients have trouble choosing appropriate behavior for the situation.

Interventions to improve self-control provide the strongest benefits to children who have difficulty with self-regulation. Many preschool programs for disadvantaged children seem to be effective because they help children learn to control themselves, not because they increase intelligence. This foundation then allows them to achieve more in school and in adulthood.

Children who are skilled at self-control are also good at regulating their own emotions and figuring out what other people are thinking and feeling. They show less anger, fear, and discomfort, as well as more empathy, than their peers. Self-control helps kids to regulate their own emotional responses by allowing them to think through the potential consequences of their actions even when they are upset. Even years later, people who had high childhood self-control are judged to be more socially competent and more popular.

What’s the connection between self-control and emotional maturity? They both involve suppressing immediate impulses in favor of longer-term thinking, and they rely on some of the same late-developing brain regions. The anterior cingulate cortex seems to be involved in understanding and controlling emotions, and another frontal area, the orbitofrontal cortex, evaluates social context and regulates emotion.

With so many advantages, it’s no surprise that self-control predicts life success. The rest of the series will focus on specific activities that research shows to be effective at building self-control and emotional self-regulation in children.

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.