Improving Impulse Control Within Young Children

Early childhood is marked by wide variations in behavior but for some young children, the presence of developmentally immature impulse control strains the patience of parents and teachers. Troubles keeping their hands to themselves, inappropriate and goofy statements, and wild and thoughtless exuberance in the company of energetic peers are among the typical troubles that plague the impulse ridden young child. Play dates disappear as word gets around to other parents, self-esteem suffers under the weight of admonishments from authorities, and parents narrow the child’s exposure to certain people and places due to the impulse triggers lurking in life.
If this sounds sadly familiar to your parenting struggles and presence of unwelcome outside scrutiny, consider these coaching tips to help your child improve  impulse control:
Start an ongoing dialogue that mixes education and understanding, with a generous serving of a loving tone. To speak meaningfully with a young child about their “bad behavior’ you must minimize questions and be prepared with answers. Typically, impulsive young kids will be unable to satisfactorily explain why they did something nor share many details about the event. Shame and fear of reproach tends to cause system shut down. “I can tell that you were having trouble controlling your excitement, probably because of how others were letting their energy out, but we can find ways for you to control how much comes out of you” is a good way to get the conversation underway.
Introduce simple strategies under controlled conditions that are practiced at home and rehearsed before events with high “IP” or impulse potential. For example, if you know your child tends to impulsively meltdown during sports, model how to “breathe the energy out” when playing ball with them by taking deep breaths after every ten throws during baseball or basketball. Explain how they can “build a better pause button’ in their mind by your verbally announcing “pause’ during times when they must contend with one of their impulse triggers. Touch your forefinger to your forehead when doing so and then encourage them to do the same until they learn how to do it silently in their mind.
Develop fun games that place control of impulses to “grab, touch, or say” as the measure of success. Be certain to target those behaviors that are especially difficult for your child to control due to the presence of other kids or certain environmental stimuli. For example, if your child tends to blurt out when the teacher is praising another student, create a game of “I didn’t say it.’ Set up scenarios where parents deliberately compliment a sibling or friend in your child’s presence to see if they can control the impulse to verbally intrude. Ensure your child knows in advance of these games and that you will give them a score of how well they did
Use easy to understand symbols on index cards to graphically portray the impulse control steps you are helping them to internalize. Refer to the television remote control as a starting off point for this discussion. Show them what the pause, play, and fast forward symbols look like, and how they can also  refer to how quickly kids let their energy out. Show them how talk and thought bubbles appear, and begin to construct sequences of these symbols on the cards to display the importance of using their button to pause action, and then their thought bubble to decide what to do (play button) or say (talk bubble). Make copies of these cards and post them in conspicuous locations (car, kitchen, family room) for reinforcement.
Dr Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA  Contact him at 610-238-4450 or