5 Ways to Help Children Focus on What They Can Control

5 Ways to Help Children Focus on What They Can Control

Recently, at bedtime, my daughter commented that grown-ups have it way better than kids. “I wish I could stay up like you and do whatever I want,” she explained — a normal childhood sentiment in a not-so-normal time.

We know that a sense of agency and control is key to happiness. Decades of research at the University of Pennsylvania shows that when people believe they can change their circumstances, they feel more hopeful and optimistic about the future.

“Over the last sixty years, study after study has found that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with virtually all of the positive outcomes we want for our children.”

-William Stixrud, Ph.D., “The Self-Driven Child”

All of us want to feel in charge. And now more than ever, children need a sense of power over their worlds. So how do we help them find (and experience) it? 

Consider these five simple and effective ways to help your child take back control and focus on all they can do!

5 Ways to Help Children Focus on What They Can Control

Teach accountability

Children who feel powerless often focus on things they can’t change. They behave reactively (“It’s not my fault”) versus proactively (“I’m in charge”). To shift this thinking, teaching accountability is vital.

Parenting coach Megan Devine suggests creating a “culture of accountability” at home. This means that:

  • Each family member is responsible for their own actions and behaviors.
  • Each family member is responsible for following the rules and expectations set by the grown-ups.
  • Each family member is responsible for how they respond to stressful or upsetting situations.

Together as a family, review your expectations, rules, and beliefs. Discuss ways your child can be successful (“What can you do to help follow the rules?”). Establish clear consequences for when those expectations are broken (“If you call your sister a mean name, you will lose electronics for the rest of the day”). 

Finally, be sure to follow through — accountability works both ways, after all!

Culture of Accountability

Create a circle of control

Control is a tricky concept to explain to a child. But a visual depiction of what they do and do not have power over makes it much less daunting. 

Start by discussing the “Circle of Control.” Explain that each day, there are many things we do have a say in and many things we don’t. We feel better when we focus on those things we can change. But first, we have to know what they are!

Next, draw a circle on a large piece of paper. Inside the circle, write your child’s name along with the words “I CAN Control.” Brainstorm a list of things they have power over each day — their words, behavior, and attitude. Draw or write each example inside the circle.

These can include: Washing my hands, calling a friend, being kind to my sister, wearing my mask, how I respond when my brother takes my toy.

During this exercise, your child might name things that cannot be controlled. When this happens, list those items outside the circle. Label this area, “Things I CAN’T Control.”

These can include: The weather, how my sister acts, my parents arguing, if other people follow social distancing, what others think of me.

When a problem arises, prompt your child to consider, “Is this inside or outside my control?” or to identify its location on the visual. Over time, focus on adding to and enhancing what’s already inside the circle — and define that as success!

Be sure to check out the popular Circle of Control poster.  It’s a great visual showing that, in each situation, there are things we can control and things we cannot control. It helps children understand putting their energy into things they can control will help them arrive at solutions more effectively.

Circle of Control

Practice mindfulness

For many children, wanting to exert control over everything is a natural urge. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible and can lead to anxiety and feelings of helplessness. So how do we help counter that impulse?

Mindfulness is the practice of accepting what is — without automatically trying to change it. Explain to your child that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we do have a say in how we respond to it. We can still choose our attitude

When your child is faced with out-of-control feelings or a challenge outside their circle of control, school counselor Keri Powers Pye recommends the following mindfulness activity:

Prompt your child to name five things they can control right now in the moment. They can use their fingers to count. The list can include: Their breathing, their thoughts, their words to themselves, their words to others, and their body.

You can also ask, “Is what’s upsetting you something you can change?” If the answer is no, point out that the problem is here in this moment but could shift. Adding a simple “for now” to the end of any problem statement (“I can’t see my friends for now”) helps us remember that all things are temporary.

Our Gratitude and Mindfulness Kit PDF showcases fun and engaging activities including Mindful Brain Breaks--perfect to use any time of the day. 

Gratitude and Mindfulness Kit

Praise effectively

All children have a way of looking at the world around them. Those with an internal locus of control believe they can direct the course of their lives. They attribute their successes to their own abilities and efforts.

On the other hand, many children struggle with an external locus of control. The circumstances and events surrounding them feel outside their power. These children view their successes as fate or even luck.

One of the simplest ways to help your child gain more confidence is by offering effective praise. Studies show that praise must be both specific (“I loved how you kept trying and didn’t give up”) and sincere in order to positively impact self-esteem. 

“Highlighting what your kids do well by providing specific, actionable feedback encourages them to believe in themselves and to repeat that same level of effort on a future task. This, in turn, will help them build their internal locus of control, which will aid them well in adulthood long after they’ve ventured off into the world on their own.”

-Tanya Dalton, Productivity Coach and author 

Pointing out real-life cause and effect helps your child connect their actions with positive outcomes. Observations might include, “You studied hard and got a good grade” or “You shared a toy with your brother earlier and look how he just gave you his extra cookie!” 

Understand N.U.T.S and the power of choice

The reasons children experience stress and anxiety are many — from losing a favorite stuffed animal to changing schools. But researcher Sonia Lupien discovered that stressful situations have something in common. 

Using the acronym NUTS, she explains that stressors contain (at least) one of the following elements:

N: Novelty (something new)

U: Unpredictability (you couldn’t have known it would happen)

T: Threat to ego (makes you doubt or question your competence or abilities)

S: Sense of control (feeling you have no say over the stressor)

When stress arises, help your child identify which of the four elements is involved. Explore whether there is anything that can be done to cope with the issue — for example, role-playing to practice a novel situation or positive affirmations to increase confidence. Check out the 25 growth mindset statements and affirmations printable available in the Growth Mindset Printables Kit PDF.

Growth Mindset Printable Kit

Be sure to label the sources of your own stressors and frustrations (“Being stuck in this traffic jam feels really overwhelming since I don’t have any control over it”). Finally, note what you’ll do to cope with the stressor (“I’m going to take a few deep breaths until I feel calmer”).

As parents, we may tell our children they’re in control — while also managing every aspect of their lives. With the best of intentions, we undermine our attempts at empowerment.

Allowing your child to make important decisions about their lives is crucial for their mental and physical health. It even impacts key brain development.

“When kids make decisions, their prefrontal cortex becomes engaged and they self-reflect, seek information, tune into their emotions to determine the right thing to do, and ask for help when needed.” 

-William Stixrud, Ph.D., Neuropsychologist and author

Consider these simple ideas:

Inevitably, situations will arise in which your child can’t have a say. In these moments, simply remind them of their ability to choose their mindset, actions, or what they tell themselves about it. Deciding how to respond is still a choice — and an important one.

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