We all know children who are very impulsive. They’re the ones who throw a tantrum at the grocery store because their moms wouldn’t buy them candy. They’re the kids at the playground who nobody plays with because they’re so quick to hit or shout at other children. Impulsive children act on their emotions, regardless of the appropriateness of their actions, leading many to label them as lacking self control.
Learning how to show excitement, joy, anger, frustration, and disappointment at appropriate times and in appropriate ways is called impulse control. If kids haven’t yet developed or mastered this important life skill, it can make them difficult to handle at home and in school.
Is it possible to teach kids how to control their behavior? Yes, it is. While children are impulsive by nature and don’t usually stop to think about the consequences of their actions until a certain age, they can be taught self-regulation as long as their parents are willing to make the effort.
Here are some of the more effective strategies to help your child learn impulse control.
Help children name and handle their feelings
When kids know what they’re feeling, they will know better how to talk about it. Teach them that emotions are normal, show them how to express these in appropriate ways. Let them know that hurting others is not allowed.
Violence can be avoided, for example, if your child learns that it’s better to say “It makes me mad when you don’t wait your turn!” rather than simply hitting out at another child. Taking the time to sit with your children and explain different feelings to them, and being sure to act in a calm manner is often the first step you should take in helping your child develop better self-control.
Teach kids how to solve problems effectively
When children know that there are ways to solve problems other than through aggression or temper tantrums, they are less likely to engage in impulsive behavior.
Problem solving skills include identifying the problem (e.g., “Both of us want the same toy.”), brainstorming for solutions to solve the problem (e.g., take turns, share the toy), considering the pros and cons of each solution, choosing one option, and finally, implementing it.
Establish a routine at home and make it clear that there are consequences if the child doesn’t follow the rules
Children need a routine in their lives, it gives them a feeling of security and stability. Let them know that when they follow the rules, they’re being responsible (doing the right thing even when mom or dad are not watching) and they will enjoy a reward for it. These rewards, which should be privileges, not hard rewards like candy, may include staying up 30 minutes later than usual if they finish their homework early.
Aside from the privileges, however, children also need to know that there are consequences if they break the rules. These consequences need to be implemented consistently by all adults in the home, otherwise it won’t work. It can include taking away a favorite object (e.g., a toy or a phone), or an opportunity to do something they enjoy (e.g., going to the mall), when they break the rules.
Knowing the effect of their actions will give children a better handle on their behavior. The next time they are tempted to misbehave, they will consider the consequences of their actions and perhaps think twice.
Help children learn to empathize
Kids need to know that their actions will have an effect on others. When parents point out, for example, that hitting a friend will hurt that friend, the child will learn to step out of themselves and consider the needs of other people. Taking them to homeless shelters to help give food or toys to children there will also teach kids how to be thankful for what they have.
Finally: show, don’t just tell!
Children learn best when you model how to handle emotions effectively. You can repeatedly tell them, for example, that it’s not nice to throw things when you’re angry, but they will learn faster and more effectively by copying your behavior. So parents need to practice what they preach. Be a model of self-discipline, and your children will follow suit!
Impulse control is a very important life skill for kids. Those with good impulse control often do better in school and tend to go further in life than those who haven’t learned self-discipline. Studies have consistently shown that they get better grades, have more fulfilling relationships, and generally lead happier lives.
Teaching self-discipline to kids may not be very easy, but remember, as with any other skill, it takes time to be mastered. Just be patient and consistent; the end reward is very much worth it!