Fostering Impulse Control

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Fostering Impulse Control

Kids are great but sometimes we’re all like “Wait, what?!?”

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Maybe we see them grabbing things that aren’t theirs, invading personal space, interrupting, etc. Why would they do that? Selfish? No, not really. What’s going on is that a lot of young children are excited…the same applies to a child that has ADHD of any age. They’re curious. They want to truly know, experience, or maybe to share…anything…everything. Now. Impulse control is an important thing to do, but how can we do it? This article addresses that very question.

Important areas to have self-control include interrupting others, being able to wait for short periods of time, touching or taking things, and personal space. These are all areas that we all run into, since there’s a number of social situations with new things, with other people, or when they cannot seem to get what they want immediately…right now.

One thing that parents or caregivers can consider doing is to make sure that all instructions are very clear and direct. Often caregivers say things like “No.” Or don’t, stop, quit, etc. One of the problems with that approach is that for children, impulse control and abstract thinking are not top strengths. Think about it like this. Let’s say your child is running down a hall. You say, “Don’t run.” Even if they did respond to that, they may think they’re doing right by skipping down the hall. I mean, come on, they aren’t running anymore.  Ok, now you say, “Stop skipping.” Fine. Assuming they listen, now they’re rolling on the floor down the hall. Clearly not what you wanted, even though technically the child followed your direction. That’s the point. Say what you want to see. “Walk down the hall.” Other examples—ask nicely before you touch, give personal space, hands to yourself, wait over there and play with something. Skip all of the vague statements—don’t, no, stop, quit. Say what you exactly want to see happen.

Another thing is to make sure that impulsive behavior doesn’t work, while better behavior that was instructed by the caregiver does work. Perfect example—interrupting. What is the child looking for? Attention. They interrupt to tell you something or to ask something—when you are mid-sentence, most of the time. Many caregivers say “Hey stop, don’t interrupt me, I’m busy now. I’ve told you before. Seriously?” Sometimes they say it in a frustrated way. They may say several sentences every time that a child interrupts. Alternatively, the caregiver may answer immediately what the child says every time. Either way, if the child was looking for attention, they would have certainly gotten it by either approach. Either the child got what they were after, or they got a big long explanation (aka, attention). Sounds like a catch 22. What can we do? Change our response. Start off at a time when the child is not interrupting. Discuss how waiting is important and it looks like having a quiet mouth and hands to self, and they can look at something else close by. Show them what it looks like for 10 seconds. Let them show you for 10 seconds. Then make sure that they know if you say “One minute” or “Wait” this is what they need to do. We can try to keep them occupied at times when we know it’s hard to wait, such as in doctor’s offices, restaurants, or pharmacies. Give them something to do—a toy, tablet, etc. Also, when they actually interrupt, say “One minute” or “Wait.” At that point, I would expect them to keep trying for awhile. Parents would then have to just ignore…wait until they see that their child is waiting appropriately for at least 15 seconds, then answer. That would mean not looking directly at their child, not talking further, not explaining several times that they are busy, etc. It would look like the parent saying just once “One minute” and then continuing about their business on the phone, or with other adults or kids. Your child may be a bit upset. They may persist for awhile. However, if you are consistent and limit the attention given while they are interrupting, then really answer when the child can actually wait nicely for a short time, then the child will give up and wait nicely.

These 2 steps depend heavily on consistency, and the child actually getting what they are looking for as long as they act appropriately. For example, let’s say the child needs to ask nicely for something before touching. Parents would say “Hands to self.” Or “Give that back” Then, “Ask nicely—can I hold this? ” The child would do as they’re told. Parents would then allow the child to touch the object. I get it, some things are fragile. Maybe the child can touch the object while the parent or caregiver decides to hold onto the object the whole time, or maybe the parent holds it and the child can look closely. Similarly, kids can ask to play with objects from their siblings or other people. As long as every time the child is impulsive it doesn’t work, and every time they act appropriately then they are able to get the attention, activities, or objects that they are looking for, then ultimately they will want to do the right thing.

These same steps can be applied to a number of other impulsive behaviors. Impulse control is certainly a challenge, but it can be built up. If you as a parent or caregiver need support, seek out a behavioral psychologist. This is the kind of thing we love to help with!



Andrew Scherbarth, Ph. D., BCBA-D

Licensed Psychologist / Board Certified Behavior Analyst

Keystone Behavioral Pediatrics

6867 Southpoint Drive North, Suite 106

Jacksonville, Florida 32216

Phone:  904-619-6071