HELPING KIDS MANAGE IMPULSIVITY

Impulses are part of normal human behavior—they serve an adaptive function, such as being able to respond quickly in the face of danger or a hungry infant crying continuously until this need is met, but too much impulsivity begins to be maladaptive—and related to a host of behavioral and emotional problems. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into this topic and offer strategies for helping children and teens manage impulsivity.

In its simplest form, an impulse is a driving or motivating force to take action that is sudden and without reflection. It is without connotation. Impulsivity, on the other hand, is usually seen as problematic. The common elements are1:

  • Reacting immediately before thoroughly processing information
  • Being unable to delay gratification
  • Not considering the consequences of one’s behavior

High impulsivity in children and teens is associated with difficulty in school (both in behavior and in academics), with peers (such as aggression), and with risk-taking (like smoking, substance use, early sexual activity)(1,2). The impacts of high impulsivity can be long-reaching. Exhibiting self-control as a child predicts positive outcomes in health, finances, and personal relationships as an adult(2).

The brain and impulsivity

Advances in neuroimaging have allowed the discovery of areas in the brain related to impulse control and executive function (processes responsible for planning, organizing, and completing tasks which are highly dependent on self-regulation). These are primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain, particularly for reward systems, attention, and decision-making. 

Self-control and self-regulation, of which impulsivity is a key component, develops over time in children. It takes a while for the brain to become organized and for higher-order processes to become smoothly functioning. It is not until about age 4 that children can begin to be somewhat competent in controlling impulses and it will take until young adulthood, when the brain is fully developed, for this to be realized consistently.

That said, there are definite individual differences among children. In children without impulsivity issues, their brains move from a resting state when not involved in a mental task to an active state when they are. However, children with impulsivity issues have brains that tend to stay busy, even when not attending to a particular mental task. In essence, their brains are always “on” and therefore more likely to be consistently reacting to their environment, which plays out as impulsivity(3).

Brains and behavior can be trained

The good news is that there are a number of strategies that have been found to be effective for helping kids manage impulsivity that are related to the brain and to subsequent behavior(4). Let’s take a look at two key areas:

Relaxation

As kids with a stronger bent toward impulsivity have more difficulty resting their brains (and minds), learning relaxation techniques is very beneficial. Here are several that older toddlers (with guidance at first) and up through teens can do. These techniques can also benefit you!

  • Deep breathing
  • Visualization (thinking of a beautiful place that makes one feel happy and calm)
  • Vigorous exercise (releases pent up energy which promotes relaxation)
  • Laughing
  • Cuddling with a pet or a favorite person

Emotion Regulation

Impulsive kids react to all their emotions very quickly. If they feel super excited because they just entered the fairgrounds, they may dart off into the crowd without warning. If they feel angry with a peer, they may impulsively hit that child. Parents can be ‘emotion coaches’ by following these simple steps5:

1. Help your child identify emotions. You can do this by labeling and discussing how they are feeling. Giving words to emotions brings in cognition, which trains the brain to more thoroughly think about and process information.

2. Validate and accept your child’s emotions, both positive and negative. Acknowledging all emotions as normal for people, and for your child in that moment, will help them learn to become more comfortable with emotions. Rather than acting out impulsively when they feel an emotion, they will be better able to process what they are feeling and not react so immediately without thinking.  

3. Set limits and consequences. Talking about, validating, and accepting emotions is not a substitute for this. While you don’t want so many rules and regulations that your child is stifled, all children, and especially impulsive children, benefit from having reasonable limits because they know what to expect.

As one area is not thinking about consequences, as a parent you can help your child by imposing logical consequences and/or allowing natural ones, provided they are fair and safe. For instance, if your teen rushes out the door and forgets her money for a field trip, she doesn’t go. If your child jumps on his bike and takes off without a helmet, he loses the opportunity to ride that day.

With guidance, help your child generate positive alternatives so they have a plan in place when the urge to be impulsive kicks in. Remember too that it’s very important to acknowledge and praise your child when they do show they are managing their impulsiveness!

Closing Thoughts

Impulsivity is heavily controlled by the brain, but managing impulsivity is controlled by strategies put in place within the environment. Being less impulsive is very feasible for kids, but they do need support and guidance.

Recommended Resources

BOOKS

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Sources

1. Bakhshani, N. M. (2014). Impulsivity: A predisposition toward risky behaviorsInternational Journal of High Risk Behaviors & Addiction3(2), e20428.

2. Tao, T., Wang, L., Fan, C., & Gao, W. (2014). Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: Perspective from a dual-systems modelScientific Reports4, 7272.

3. Inuggi, A., Sanz-Arigita, E., González-Salinas, C., Valero-García, A. V., García-Santos, J. M., & Fuentes, L. J. (2014). Brain functional connectivity changes in children that differ in impulsivity temperamental traitFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience8, 156.

4. Neto, R. D. C. A., & True, M. (2011). The development and treatment of impulsivityPsico42(1), 134-141.

5. Eanes, R. (August, 2015). Becoming an Emotion Coach. Seattle, WA: Gottman Institute.

About the Author:

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.