Why is it so hard for children to control themselves?

Dr. M. C. Jain

M. A. P.hD ( Psychology )
Consultant Psychologist

Self- control is not traditionally part of a child’s job description, but over the last 20 years , scientists have gathered a lot more information about why children are particularly prone to failures of self-control, compared with adults.

Let us take an example of Sohan. He tends to do whatever comes into his mind, apparently without pausing to think about the impact or result or consequences of his actions. Emotionally unpredictable, his behavior is often atrocious-so bad, in fact that going out with him in public can be a nightmare . His family says that he seems to have no “off” button. His manners are nonexistent, he has the attention span of a gnat, and his reckless, confrontational behavior means he is constantly getting himself into trouble. He displays a total disregard for rules and regulations, and often comes across as selfish, boastful and immature.

Sohan cuts an unattractive figure. We have all come across children who behave like Sohan and if we are honest, at times we can recognize elements of Sohan in even the most immaculately behaved child. Sohan, however, is not a child. He is a 40year old adult and prior to a car accident ten months ago; his personality and behavior were very different. He was a gentle, shy, cultivated man, much loved by his friends and respected by his office colleagues. Sohan suffers from a condition called orbito-frontal syndrome pattern of disinherited emotion and behavior caused by damage to a particular part of his brain. Cases of brain injury such as Sohan’s have given researchers invaluable insights into how the brain works and have been enormously helpful in mapping how different areas of the brain relate to specific abilities. Interestingly, neuroscientists have also discovered that the area of the brain damaged in Sohan’s case does not fully develop in perfectly normal human beings until well into their teenage years.

In the language of cognitive psychology, the prefrontal cortex is the command center for the “cool system “This is the counter part of the “hot system”. It seems that our ability to exercise effective self –control depends upon the way these two systems interact. The hot system is designed to produce rapid, automatic reaction to aspects of the environment that we need to be attracted to or repelled by. Whereas the cool system gives us our ability to process more complex aspects of the world. The cool system is rational, logical and trades in the currency of information instead of high-octane emotion. Although functionally distinct, these two systems are linked. In children, the cooling system takes time to evolve. A combination of fewer cool nodes and poor connections with relevant hot spots tends to leave children at the mercy of their hot system impulses.