How do children learn to self-regulate?

Sabina Pauen is a professor of developmental and biological psychology. Her current focus is on children’s ability to self-regulate and the role that parents play here
Interview: Jasmin Priesnitz | Illustration: Friederike Schlenz | Photo: Heidelberg University | 2019/2

What is your stance on sweets? Should we ban children from eating sweets?

While bans can sometimes be necessary, banning anything outright can be problematic. A ban will help regulate the amount of sweets your children eat, but only while you are there to keep an eye on them. What it won’t do is help children to question their craving for sugar. All they will be thinking about is what is stopping them from getting what they want and how they can get hold of some sweets. As soon as you are not there to supervise or someone else offers them sweets, the children will be all the keener to tuck in. This is the problem with bans. We need to take an alternative approach and help children adopt a sensible attitude towards sugar.

The key here is not to offer children sweets too early. Parents should also make sure that their children’s diets don’t feature too many items that contain hidden sugar – like juice, for example. If children are offered too much sugar from an early age, their bodies learn to see it as the quickest and easiest source of energy. All other foodstuffs have to be broken down first, which is more work for the body but healthier.

What age groups are you talking about here?

Babies and toddlers. Once children reach nursery age, it becomes more difficult to control their sugar intake because they aren’t just eating at home any more. But it still makes sense to limit how much you offer when they are at home.

You mentioned self-regulation. What do you mean by that? And how does it work?

In general terms, self-regulation is about controlling your own behaviour, thoughts and feelings. The first step here is recognising your own craving for sweets. Then you have to learn to make a conscious decision about how to deal with the cravings. To give an example: if there’s a plate of biscuits on the table in front of me and I notice that I can’t think about anything else except those biscuits, then perhaps the best thing I can do is to push them aside. I can also try to push my thoughts aside. But these are strategies that children have to learn. Children in their early years are not generally ready for nuanced self-reflection. However, we can help them to develop along those lines.

How can parents support their children? Are there strategies or routines that can help? And what is the best age for parents to begin with this?

In our research we have discovered that direct impulse control develops at around the second year of life. This is a key developmental phase, so it is vital that we, as parents, support our children from the outset. By the age of around three, the orbitofrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control, has matured significantly. But even before this, children listen to what we say. We have to make sure that our statements are very clear, because children aren’t yet able to follow or process long sentences. Parents should be aware that saying ‘stop’ once in a while helps their child to develop. Of course, it is important how parents say it. It needs to be said in a friendly but firm tone. And when you do say ‘stop’, it is vital to make sure that your child does actually stop. A child will only learn if he or she recognises that, ‘When my parents tell me to do something, they mean it.’ Failing to impose consequences has the opposite effect. It sounds easy in principle, but it’s often difficult to put into practice.

How important is it that we set a good example for our children?

If I, as a parent, drink a lot of fruit juice or fizzy drinks, I can’t just offer my child mineral water. That just won’t work. I can’t expect my child to eat and drink sensibly if I don’t pay attention to what I’m eating and drinking, too. I need to be able to justify what I’m doing. As a parent, I’m the one who fills the fridge and cupboards with sugary food, not my child. And my children also learn from watching my eating habits.

Parents may find it useful to talk about how difficult it sometimes is to resist. It can be helpful for your child to hear you say, ‘I’d like another piece of chocolate too, but I know that it’s better if we don’t have one just now’. This way the child learns that this isn’t a simple situation and you can also begin to show the child how best to deal with it. Parents might say, for example, ‘Come on, let’s put the biscuits away now!’ or ‘We’ll tidy the kitchen up first and then we’ll have a little piece’. The same strategies that help me, as a parent, to regulate my own consumption can also help my child. That’s why it’s good to articulate these thoughts in front of your child. If your child learns to see regulating cravings as something that you have in common, he or she will be more inclined to join in.

So children learn these strategies from their parents, internalise them and, in an ideal scenario, can also apply them at nursery?

Yes, I find that really interesting! Children who are good at self-regulation are often able to teach other children self-regulatory strategies. From a good starting point, the system can have a positive ripple effect. But not all children are the same. Some children have very strong impulses, while others are more restrained. Those who behave very impulsively naturally find self-regulation more difficult. In these cases it is all the more important that parents remain patient and are not put off by setbacks.

What role does understanding the body’s inner balance play?

If the family talks about internal feelings, by asking a child, for example, ‘Are you full yet or not?’ this encourages a mindful self-view. The child learns to find words for their internal feelings. Talking makes children begin to think about what is going on inside. The better they are able to do this, the less they will feel the need for a sugar rush.

Can self-regulation also be transferred to other areas of everyday life, for example media consumption or emotions?

Yes, definitely. Mindfulness and self-regulation can be practised in a range of different everyday situations. It is important to help children learn self-control by listening patiently and sympathetically, by talking about their feelings and needs, but also by standing your ground. Including where sweets are concerned! 


‘I can’t expect my child to eat and drink sensibly if I don’t pay attention to what I’m eating and drinking, too. I need to be able to justify what I’m doing. My children learn from watching my eating habits.’

Prof Sabina Pauen

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