Do you wish your child would think before acting more often? Learn how to teach impulse control for kids with these 5 useful tools.
Wondering what age kids typically stop to think before acting? Many parents struggle with impulse control for kids, despite time-outs or removing privileges.
Perhaps your child grabs toys from other kids or pushes them for no reason. He doesn’t think twice about touching something hot or dirty, and he can’t stay away from the items you keep telling him not to touch.
The confusing part? He says “sorry” right away and clearly knows that what he did was wrong. How can you teach him to think first, and then act?
Teaching impulse control for kids
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We all want our kids to learn how to control their impulses. No one wants their child to be “the bully” who can’t keep his hands to himself. It’s also exhausting to say “no” over and over, or to follow your child around to make sure he’s behaving well.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way.
The first step to take is to always bring up any concerns you might have with your child’s pediatrician and teacher.
While most behavior is typical or can be resolved with parenting tips, sometimes the causes can stem deeper than that. Both the pediatrician and teacher can better assess his behavior and guide your next steps.
But if all checks out well, below are a few useful tools and strategies to try that I’ve used with my own kids. They’re good to practice regardless, and can make a huge difference with helping your child better control his impulses.
Experts also tout the importance of impulse control with many aspects of our lives. As author and professor Robert D. Putnam shares in his book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis:
“Intellectual and socioemotional development are inextricably intertwined from an early age. Research has shown that so-called noncognitive skills (grit, social sensitivity, optimism, self-control, conscientiousness, emotional stability) are very important for life success. They can lead to greater physical health, school success, college enrollment, employment, and lifetime earnings…”
In other words, impulse control for kids isn’t just to get them to behave, but affects their adult lives as well. Ready to get started on how to develop this important skill now? Here we go:
1. Have your child re-do the activity correctly
After brushing their teeth, I had my twins open the medicine cabinet and return their rinsing cups. My pet peeve, however, was when, after putting their cups away, they’d slam the cabinet door really hard.
For a while, I kept explaining how doing that could break the mirror, or that it’s simply not the right way to take care of our things. But my words didn’t make a difference—like a habit, they would continue to slam the door shut.
So, I took a different tactic: instead of explaining or reminding them not to do it again, I had them re-do it correctly. I’d open the cabinet door and ask them to close it again, but this time, gently.
You can use this technique for everything you to nag your child about, from putting his pajamas away to speaking to his siblings more politely.
Many of the aggravating things you wish he would think more about before acting can lessen. New habits can replace his old ones, especially after having done it the right way many times.
You see, our brains need to relearn a different way to do an action—it’s like we’re replacing our old habits with new ones. Not only that, but we need constant repetition to get the message through.
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2. Use natural consequences
Do you threaten your child with consequences, hoping he’ll finally start thinking about his behavior before acting on them?
We often do this, especially since we usually threaten them with something we know they’ll be devastated to bear. After all, sometimes it feels like we need to go to the extremes just to get them to listen.
If he writes on the wall with crayons, you might tell him he can’t watch his favorite TV show tonight to really drive the point home.
More than likely, he’ll feel sorry, but begrudgingly, all without any true lessons learned. He’s driven by fear of punishment to behave, rather than using this opportunity to learn a more appropriate way to color.
A more effective response? Stick to natural consequences that tie to his behavior.
Yes, you know he’ll stop and listen if you don’t let him watch his favorite TV show. But he’ll make better decisions when he can tie his behavior to a natural consequence.
Maybe that means he now needs to wash the crayons off the walls, so he knows it’s not the best place to color. Grabbing a toy from his sister’s hands might mean he can’t play with that toy for the rest of the day. Not being careful around the kitchen means he has to stay in the living room while you finish up dinner.
This way, even these challenging moments can help him learn the consequences of his behavior.
3. Prevent impulsive behavior
Do you ever feel like you tell your child “no” all day long? You’re practically watching her like a hawk, ready for yet another impulsive behavior to correct or tell her not to do.
But rather than fixing what’s wrong, you can prevent these situations from happening at all. What can you do to keep her from having to control her impulses in the first place?
Instead of telling her not to touch breakables or harmful items, move them out of reach so she’s not even tempted.
Prevention can be as simple as making sure you’re meeting her basic needs. A hungry, tired child who needs your attention is less likely to think about her actions than if she was fed and well-rested.
4. Adjust your expectations
As much as we know how different kids are wired, it’s also just as easy to forget that they don’t think and behave the way you and I do. If another adult were as challenging as kids can be, we’d definitely think they were crazy!
The thing is, kids are curious and drawn to explore. Their brains haven’t developed yet to make reasonable decisions the way we can. It’s normal for them to act first without thinking through the consequences of their behavior.
Not to say that this is ideal, but understanding where they’re coming from helps us be more patient and empathetic.
Try not to get too frustrated when it feels like you need to keep repeating yourself (remember, repetition works and helps to rewire old habits into new ones!).
5. Teach important social skills
Sometimes it feels like nothing we say registers with our kids. We might tell them to not hit or grab, or to think before they act, but often it’s not enough to just say what to do or not do. Some of these words and phrases can even seem foreign to them, like “think before you act.”
Instead, teaching impulse control for kids starts with social skills they can understand and practice. A few ideas include:
- Personal space: Be specific about what’s okay and not okay with respecting other people’s personal space. You might explain that we keep our hands to ourselves, or that it’s okay to hug if the other person wants to hug as well.
- Turn-taking: To avoid grabbing toys or misbehaving when your child wants a turn, talk about how turn-taking works. You might explain that when one person is done, then it can be another person’s turn, so that everyone gets a try.
- Using our words: Does he react when he feels wronged? Share the power of using our words, giving clear examples of what he can say instead, like “I’m mad.” You can even have him repeat those words again so he can practice right on the spot.
No mom wants to see her child struggle with impulse control, much less feel like she has to police his every move. But as you can see, you can take actionable steps to help yours better manage his behavior and thinking process.
Simple tactics like having your child re-do the activity a better way or teaching social skills can help him remember what to do next time. Give him natural consequences that tie to his behavior so he can see the results of his choices.
Besides correcting his behavior, you can also prevent them by lessening the chances they even happen. And finally, adjust your expectations and remember that his brain is still growing and wired differently than adults.
With these tips, he can better develop his impulse control—even if it means having him close the medicine cabinet again… but gently this time.
p.s. Check out What Were You Thinking? by Bryan Smith, all about learning to control impulses:
Get more tips:
- 5 Things to Remember when You’re Losing Your Temper with Your Toddler
- One Question You Should Always Ask before You Discipline Your Child
- Are You Teaching These Life Skills Your Child Needs in Adulthood?
- What to Do if Your Child Is Talking in Class Too Much
- How to Respond when Your Child Makes a Mistake
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