Willpower, the Super Power

I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and it was very inspirational.

I would highly recommend it if you have anything in your life you want to change. Not only does it teach you how to change personal habits, it has implications for how to parent and teach children habits, especially those who are easily distracted or impulsive. This book was so full of information that you will probably see other posts it inspired in the near future.

The part of the book I’m writing about today is willpower.

Ah, willpower. The thing that makes us really work at doing something or not doing something. This is a highly mental process that requires our brains to be “on.” As adults this is the word we tend to use for ourselves, but in children we tend to say self-control or self-regulation.

Here are some things they say have an effect on willpower:

They found that when people were treated nicely they had more willpower.

As an employee you may already have recognized that working in a place where your boss acts like a dictator is less pleasant to work in than one in which you get a say in the daily operations. Well, let’s think about what this means for children and how adults interact with them. Yes, you’re the parent and you are the boss; we aren’t suggesting that you let your kids run the show, but there is something to be said about changing up how you do things if you are constantly fighting a battle of the wills with your easily distracted child. Maybe it’s time to use a friendlier approach.

This is important for teachers and parents. If you have a child who is struggling to pay attention or impulsively blurts out in class (because these things take a lot of willpower for kids with ADHD) you will see more improvement in behavior if you are pleasant than if you bark orders at them.

For instance, try explaining to children that if they can use their willpower to stay focused on the morning routine (rather than wrestling with their brother, for instance) that it helps you out. Kids like to be helpful! Have this conversation at a time when you aren’t racing out the door, then remind them in the morning before the routine begins until you see an improvement.

You can explain that willpower is a superpower and use the whole superhero angle if it helps. Whatever works for your child is worth trying. Having willpower is an important life skill!

They found that we have a limited willpower “muscle.”

Say you are avoiding junk food and a coworker brings in donuts. They aren’t all eaten so they sit there all day. This is not the day to go to the grocery store after work and expect that you will be able to avoid the temptation of other treats there. Your willpower “muscle” has been exercising all day (assuming that you were able to avoid the donuts of course!).

This explains one reason why children who have ADHD and impulsivity may have more difficulty in the afternoons. It can certainly explain why homework can be a headache for many families. Their willpower muscle is tired!

For children who are impulsive can you do something to help their willpower?

Yes. Other than what we’ve mentioned already you can exercise this “muscle.” Practice does help!

What exercises improve willpower?

There are many opportunities throughout your day where you can include it in your routine, though sometimes with our busy lives it may be hard to see where you can spend some extra time with this. Start small, and not right before bedtime. For younger children for instance, try placing a snack in front of your hungry child and set a timer; ask them to wait until the timer goes off before they start eating. Start with a few seconds and work up to a minute. For older children it may mean just staying focused longer on their homework. We always like the idea of having children help make their own goals, so maybe they have ideas!

There are many more ways to work on this. We incorporate this skill in in our therapy sessions, so send us a message or make an appointment if you’re interested in other ideas. We’d love to hear your thoughts as well if you have worked on this with your child.