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Managing Childhood Impulsivity

Many parents have a hard time with children who display impulsive behaviors. We all know that babies and toddlers want things, and they usually want them NOW! But as children get older, they start to develop the ability to delay gratification and make more constructive choices when they want something.

The main areas of impulsivity that children (especially children with attention or empathy deficits) struggle with are;

  • Interrupting conversations
  • Physicality before using their words
  • Calling out in class, or group situations

All of these areas present problems when trying to function as a family. You may be at the end of your tether with your child, and completely at a loss when it comes to understanding why they do what they do. Well, we think it boils down to this – Waiting is hard work!

For an adult, a decision is made based on weighing up costs and benefits. This process takes place over many years, and nobody ever completely masters the art of perfect decision-making. In fact, impulsive decision making is a normal part of life, and teaches us to learn from our mistakes or “Learn the Hard Way.” Sometimes this is the only way that some lessons can be learned. However, as parents, we are required to model self control in order to make constructive choices that will benefit our families, and other people in our local and global communities.

Why should we delay gratification?
If we have the means, or the power to get what we want when we want it – should we still need to delay gratification? In our opinion, yes. When you wait for something, you appreciate it more, you become more thankful for what you have, and you build character in the meantime.

How can parents model self control?

(1) Be honest with your children
Wanting something and having to wait for it is sometimes very difficult. Have an open dialogue about the ways in which you may struggle with delaying gratification. Make a point to tell your children about some ways you distract yourself from wanting an extra piece of cake, or buying that gadget that you want but don’t need.

(2) Set them up for success
If you don’t want them to eat candy, don’t keep candy in the house! If you want them to stop interrupting you, make a system where you can non-verbally communicate that you will be with them soon. For example, some parents ask their kids to place a hand on their arm while waiting to say something. The parent places their hand on top of the child’s hand to non-verbally affirm that they know the child wants to talk. Then, once the parent has finished talking to whomever they were first speaking, the parent responds to the child.

(3) Rewind!
If your child has an impulsive behavior, stop it as soon as possible – then tell the child exactly what they did, with fact not feeling (e.g. “You hit your brother before using your words.”) After labeling what just happened call, “Rewind!” – this gives your child the chance to do-ver their unproductive choice. Instead of becoming angry at your child’s behavior, remove your emotion and help “reprogram” their actions.

(4) “Think first, then act.”
Use this phrase to help your child externalize their behavior. Where you have time in advance, help your child to plan ahead, by talking about what is going to happen and possible ways to deal with the situation. Have your child come up with a productive choice, or coach their thinking to suggest a more positive outcome.

How do you know when it’s time to seek help?
Impulsivity in older children, and young adolescents, can be a problem that leads into non-preferred adult behaviors. Without a grasp on delayed gratification, teens may be more prone to having unprotected sex, or making snap decisions about sex in general. Food and alcohol use may also become problematic, as well as emotional regulation or money management.

If you are concerned about your child’s level of impulsivity, contact a professional (therapist, behavior specialist etc.) and make a plan towards tackling these impulsive behaviors.

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