Parent Coach: Teaching Impulsive Kids To Slow Down

Dear Susan,

I have a 10-year-old son who is a sweet boy but frequently acts without thinking. This has gotten him into a lot of trouble at school and at home. He blurts things out inappropriately, takes things from classmates for a laugh, and runs off when we're at the mall. We have tried telling him to act his age, and tried punishing him when he doesn't, but nothing seems to help. What can we do?

Sick of Scolding

Dear Sick of Scolding,

There is a gap, or pause, between the moment a child feels an impulse to do something, and the moment he acts on that feeling. In a young child, the pause is so short that for all intents and purposes, he will act on whatever impulse he feels, disregarding issues of safety or propriety. This is why we keep a close eye on little children; we act as the inhibitory response that reins in their potential recklessness.

As children grow older, they improve at hitting "pause" before acting on an impulse, so they have time to decide whether something is -- or isn't -- a good idea.

Children who have issues with impulsivity behave as though they are younger than they are, frustrating people around them who expect kids to act their age. Lectures, threats and punishments often aren't effective because the pause between impulse and action isn't significant enough for the youngster to consider whether he should or should not grab a classmate's pencil or run off in the mall.

Here's my advice:

  • Adjust your expectations. Your child is not going to mature more quickly simply because you wish he would.

  • Put him in charge of something. While you can't accelerate his maturity, you can provide him with opportunities to take on ever-increasing levels of responsibility, whether it's helping you carry in groceries, choosing where to plant the sunflowers, or deciding whether to add cinnamon to the cookies you're making together. In other words, look for moments when your son gets to step into bigger shoes, and, as you put it, “act his age.”
  • Try martial arts classes. Some highly impulsive children benefit from this training. If his teacher is patient, you son may gain skills to slow down and better learn to manage his impulses.
  • Make sure he's well-rested and nourished. A child who is hungry, tired or fueled by excessive sugar will almost certainly be less able to manage his behavior.
  • Give your son the chance to do something that makes him feel successful, whether it's swimming, singing or jumping on the trampoline. Many impulsive children feel they're constantly failing or disappointing others, which puts them in a state of stress that fuels their misbehavior.
  • Brainstorm what your son can do when he's restless in class and likely to become disruptive (e.g. play with a squeeze ball, or rub his hands together to slow down his reactivity); help him get used to these activities through role play. Repeated practice at acting out alternative strategies often helps impulsive children stretch out that pause between wanting to do something and deciding it's not a good idea.
  • Help him build awareness of his surroundings by inviting him to find potential hazards in his immediate environment when you're out together, so he begins to learn to pay special attention.
  • As frustrating as it is to deal with your son's mishaps, if you accept him as he is -- rather than comparing him to what I call your ideal, "snapshot child" -- you'll be better able to teach him to manage his behavior. Every child develops at his own rate. Avoid shaming and blaming him; make sure your expectations align with reality; and you'll help train your son to hit that “pause” button before acting on impulse.

    Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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