A Few Ideas to Help with Impulse Control in Young Children

It comes out of nowhere. The sudden flash of inspiration, like a bolt of lightning somewhere in the unlimited skies of the mind’s imagination. You see the slide, gleaming in the mid-day sunlight, shining brightly and almost smiling after having successfully carried another laughing child. You look down at your hand, filled with freshly laid woodchips from the big green, earthy smelling truck that pulled out as your Dad pulled in to the parking lot. A few chips fall to the ground as your gaze returns to the slide. There is a rush of excitement and positive feelings as it all comes together in your head. You take the seven steps forward to the slide, the last two almost at a gallop as your plan falls into place. The hand is upraised. The woodchips are placed at the apex of the slide (or as close as your 5 year old arm can reach). And release. The chips cascade down the slide, gaining speed as they reach the curved bottom and fly off onto the soft dirt below. Success! Woodchips can slide too! And the whole thing took about 4 seconds to accomplish, from inspiration to execution. Let’s do it again!!

Kids are impulsive. Everyone with kids knows that. And little kids (preschoolers and toddlers) really have a hard time at controlling their impulses.

Impulse control is the ability, in the moment, to control an impulse for action. You want another cookie and start to grab for it, but you pause and think “even though I want another one, I won’t take it. I’m only allowed two.” Impulse control is all about the coordination of thought, emotion and action. Self-restraint and self-control are other ways of saying impulse control. In the above example, the child just couldn’t control his impulse to send the woodchips down the slide. The desire to fulfill his vision outweighed any lessons he had already learnt about things going down the slide other than himself, and any playground rules he may have heard. In the above description, slowed down, we can see the steps involved. But, in the child’s experience in the moment, it all happened so fast that it seemed impossible to stop. And for parents, unless right there with the child watching the whole thing unfold from the beginning, it seemed to come out of the blue.

Impulse control is an executive function that develops in the front part of your brain (behind your forehead). Other executive functions include reason, reflection and other complex mental processes. These are the skills are slow to develop and don’t fully mature until young adulthood.

With our bodies, we first master sitting up; then we master crawling; then walking. And only then can we learn and master running. Along the way there are lots of spills, bumps, failures and successes. Eventually, motor coordination abilities get stronger and better. It’s the same with impulse control. First we form desires, then we develop the ability to think and plan how to achieve these desires. Then, comes the ability to use our surroundings and our internal cues to make determinations about when to apply the brakes, or when to proceed full throttle. We begin to experience the good, bad and ugly of restraint. Eventually, with lots of practice we get better at managing how to make what we want happen within the greater confines of what is possible and what is expected of us.

Is poor impulse control a bad thing in young children? Not when we understand it as a skill that is growing and maturing in an underdeveloped part of the brain, and a skill that needs lots of practice and experiences of failure and success. Not if we see mistakes as opportunities to help kids to learn through feedback and guidance.

Here are some ideas about helping your young child learn to control his or her impulses and to develop better self-control and restraint.

First, as I just described, it is important to have the right mindset about what impulsive behavior is and what it isn’t. As I stated above, impulse control is a mental capacity that is still developing in the young mind. As a parent, try to look at impulsive behavior as an outward expression of the internal development of the ability to coordinate and balance desire, action, and expectations. Try not to look at impulsive behavior as an expression of the child being naughty on purpose, or of knowing better but willfully disobeying prescribed rules of behavior. Don’t judge the impulsive behavior as bad or an opportunity to punish. Remember, the skills are underdeveloped and still need lots of practice. And practice means doing it right sometimes and wrong sometimes. A big part of practicing is learning what you did wrong so that you can try not to do that again and instead do what’s right.

Second, look at the aftermath of the impulsive behavior as an opportunity to teach control and self-restraint. If you try to head it off before it occurs, you will be spending all your time with eyes glued on the child watching for the impulsive behaviors to take over. And let’s face it, nobody can be, or want to be, that vigilant all the time. Look at the moments after the event as the “teachable moment”.

Once the impulsive behavior has occurred, get the child’s attention and describe what you saw happen, trying to use language free of judgment. Using the above woodchip example, you might say “Hey there! I saw that you took a bunch of woodchips and sent them down the slide!” Talk slowly and give the child a moment to take it in and respond. Maybe you get a sheepish grin (a good sign, as it might indicate that the child somehow knows that’s not a very good thing to do). Maybe the child grins widely and goes for another impulsive handful. Offer your own calm but firm hand of restraint at this point 🙂

Then, engage the child in seeing alternatives to the impulsive behavior and what he might do differently. You might talk about what he can do with the woodchips instead of sending them down the slide. You might reinforce the rule about only people going down the slide, not woodchips. This could become a discussion about what other things can’t go down the slide (rocks, sand, you on your stomach backwards). The goal is to help the child see his or her behavior from different perspectives and learn to come up with what alternative behavior looks like. Maybe you model taking the woodchips in the hand, looking at the slide, stating the rule that “woodchips stay on the ground and not the slide”, and dropping the woodchips.

Look for and celebrate the small steps along the path of developing impulse control as much as the big steps. It’s the hesitation before action, the “pause,” that shows the child is learning from the feedback he or she is receiving as a result of their behavior. The twinkle of the eye or the devilish grin is the child saying “See, I’m learning how to control myself!” In essence, these small gestures we see so frequently in young children are bearing witness to actual brain development. How cool is that!