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.
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.