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Developing Impulse Control in Children

One of the most frustrating parts of being a parent is having your children be so impulsive. They do and say things without thinking, even when you have told them not to. They don’t stop and ask for the toy, they take it. They say the most embarrassing things in public and touch EVERYTHING. But that is exactly what they are supposed to do. As difficult as it is for us, children are supposed to be impulsive. The frustration actually comes from our expectations often being higher than what children are actually capable of.

The human brain isn’t fully developed until well into our 20’s. It is constantly growing and changing and learning. The part of our brain that is able to have some sort of impulse control doesn’t really come online till nearly the age of 4 years old and even then it is a bit hit and miss. Then when you think your children have finally got a hold of impulse control, the brain goes through another huge change in development right around puberty. Which means with adolescence comes poor impulse control again, with the added bonus of hormones. As hard as it is, they are doing their best with what they have at the time.

When a child is in the moment, especially when emotions are high, they haven’t developed the ability to stop, examine the environment, think of the possible consequences and decide if this is the right time to act. If you ask them why they did what they did, they can’t tell you, they just reacted in the moment. With practice and support we can help children to develop these skills, but just like learning to read, it takes time.

Developing Impulse Control

Some children are naturally going to have more ability to manage impulses than others. Then there are children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or other neurodivergence that makes impulse control incredibly difficult. While there are things that we can do to help develop impulse control, some children will still need quite a lot of support around this.

1. Labeling Feelings:

When Children are little, they are overwhelmed with this emotion that crashes over them like a wave. They have no control over it and they don't really understand what it is. It is our job to label the emotion for them. Just like learning to speak, children need to learn the language of emotions. They need to connect the feeling of Anger with their heart racing, getting hot, wanting to yell and kick. When we can name a feeling it becomes less scary, it becomes normal, something that we all experience.

There is scientific research that explains why labeling feelings is helpful. When we are in a highly emotional state, your limbic or emotional brain takes over. We can no longer think clearly and logically. Our brain is in survival mode and will do what it needs to, either fight, flight or freeze and no amount of someone reasoning with us will work. However, research has found that if we can label the emotion, you will start to activate the prefrontal cortex or thinking part of the brain (Lieberman, 2007). So basically when you or your child is overwhelmed by an emotion, simply being able to say what that emotion is will slow the emotional roller coaster and start the process to help think clearer to find a solution. You don’t have to label the emotion in the moment but talk about emotions often, read books about them, use visuals (like my feelings faces discs) and help them understand what they feel like. That way when they come, they will be more likely to tell you what they are feeling and slow the impulse.

2. Make directions clear

When children are struggling with impulse control, they are easily distracted trying to take in all the information around them. We aren’t doing them any favours by giving them instructions with multiple tasks. Saying “go and get the hair brush, put your lunch in your bag and pick up your clothes on the floor”, might be too much for them to take in. Keep it simple. To help keep them focused and making sure they are processing what you have said, it can help to have them repeat it back to you, or even have regular tasks displayed as visual reminders to keep them on track.

3. Problem-Solve together

Learning to problem-solve is an incredibly powerful tool to improve impulse control. When we support our children to try and find solutions for themselves, rather than us swooping in and giving them all the answers, we are helping them develop an understanding of possible consequences and the confidence that they have some control in their life. It can be as simple as working out how to build a tower with blocks, but instead of us saying “no that won’t work, do…..”, we step back and say “I wonder what will happen if you do that? What else could you do?” Whenever you can, have your children think about what they could do and think of as many possibilities as they can. Have them think about what would happen if they chose that possibility, good or bad, so they can see why some choices are better than others. For more information on this you can go to my blog Teaching Problem Solving

4. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is bringing yourself back to the present moment, being aware of your senses, thoughts and emotions in that moment and not letting your thoughts run away. Mindfulness helps build neurological pathways that promote focus and cognitive control. These skills are accessed from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Childhood and adolescence are when the most development of the prefrontal cortex takes place. So basically by practicing mindfulness at these key stages of development, children are building the paths for increased focus, control and emotional regulation that will stay with them throughout their life.

There are lots of mindfulness activities to do. Keep it fun and a regular practice. Help them learn to slow their breathing and connect to their senses, have them identify what they can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. Or simply blow bubbles slowly and watch the colours as they pop. Connect with how their body feels as they do this. If they practice when they are calm, they will be more likely to be able to do this when they are dysregulated. For more mindfulness activities you can read my previous blog.

5. Impulse control games

Children’s games that require listening, following instructions and stopping are fantastic at developing impulse control. Games such as Simon says, follow the leader or statues, all require children to focus on what is happening and respond. These fun games actually help to build skills in impulse control.

There are lots of things we can do throughout our day that will help children develop impulse control. But it is so important that we remember that our children are growing and developing. We can’t expect them to use skills that they simply don’t have. They aren’t trying to annoy us or not listen, they just don’t have the skills yet. But as we support them and practice these skills with them, they will eventually develop impulse control.

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