If you’ve spent any time at all with children, you know they can be impulsive. We often see kids jumping off furniture, touching wet paint, or bumping into people and objects as they move excitedly to the playground.
This isn’t a character flaw – it is rooted in brain development. The brains of young children are wired for automatic reactions, but not logical, complex thinking (yet). Impulse control is a function of the prefrontal cortex. However, this area of the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s. This is why kids often act before they think.
Impulses are reactions that we don’t consciously choose. In fact, when a child acts impulsively, he is often as surprised by his actions as the people around him. We’ve all seen a child do something senseless, like jump off a high step. There is a moment right before he howls in pain that he looks up in shock, almost as if to say, “Why did I do that?!” Because impulses are behavior without forethought, they cannot be effectively managed by punishment or reward. In fact, impulses are natural, and children should not be made to feel ashamed when they act impulsively. Instead, they should learn that impulses, unlike reflexes, can be controlled with practice.
So how exactly do kids practice impulse control?
Consider these tips.
For kids to learn to manage impulses, they first must know what they are. It's helpful to have this conversation when things are calm, not immediately after an impulsive behavior has gone wrong. But of course, how often do we think to talk about a topic if it’s not a reaction to something? In an ideal world, you might sit down with a child and introduce the idea of impulsive behavior with something like this.
“Have you ever wanted something that was way up high on a shelf? And even though you knew it was too high, all you could think of is how much you wanted it? And maybe you did something kind of dangerous or crazy to reach it?! I think we’ve all done that before! When you have a strong feeling, like wanting something, or being angry, or being over excited, that strong feeling can get in the way of making good choices. When we don’t stop to think before we act, it’s called impulsive behavior.”
If you can do that, great! Realistically, you’ll probably think to talk about impulses after there’s been an incident of some kind. And hey, that’s perfectly fine! The most important step is to do it after the child has calmed down. It’s not ideal to teach a lesson about impulses while a child is still holding their scraped knee.
A conversation following an impulsive decision gone wrong might sound like:
“Earlier, when you (fill in the blank), you acted on an impulse. An impulse is something we do without thinking first. For example, the other day, I blurted out the answer to a question at work instead of waiting to see if anyone else knew the answer. This was an impulse, too. We all have impulses, and we all have to work to control our impulses, so we don’t get hurt or hurt others.”
Practicing impulse control isn’t just an activity to do to help pass the time. When kids practice these important skills, it forms neural connections in the brain that help them better control their impulses in the future.
Impulse control games can be fun! Here are a few ideas:
Blow bubbles and instruct the child not to pop them.
Play “Simon says”. Then play again but flip the rules – this time, only act when Simon doesn’t say. Then flip the rules again. This time create signals in place of the phrase, such as a hand movement or a certain number of claps. The goal is to get it increasingly complex (but not so hard that it’s impossible) to give them more and more practice focusing and pausing before taking an action.
Play freeze dance. Start a song and have kids freeze in place when the song pauses. You can create silly dances for each time the song plays or let them use their own moves.
Play Shout it Out: An Impulse Game. This is a card game we created to help kids practice impulse control. (It can be played by a whole class or even one child and an adult.)
Or make up your own! Any activity that builds in a small pause before acting is a helpful tool for impulse control.
Look, we’re not saying that if you practice enough, they’ll never struggle with impulse control again. That’s not reasonable, because developmentally kids still have a lot of brain development ahead of them. But that’s also not the goal, because as kids make mistakes with impulses, they can continue to learn from them to help make better decisions in the future.
So when a mistake occurs, be sure to check in. This can sound like:
“It looks like earlier, your impulses took over before you could think about your action. This caused (fill in the blank). What do you think you could do differently next time so that same thing doesn’t happen again?”
This little conversation – brief, free of shame and judgement – isn’t necessarily going to cause the child to think or act differently the next time. (But it might!) But either way, it makes a connection for the child: impulse preceded action. So as their brain continues to develop, they’ll continue to reinforce this idea that they have impulses, and that they can choose whether or not to act on them.
For young kids, check out our simple book: I am an Impulse, available in our online shop.