Impulse Control Strategies for Kids: In this post, you will learn 30 useful strategies that will help your family deal with impulsive behavior. You will also read tips on how to communicate effectively with your impulsive child.
Table of contents:
- What is Impulse Control
- Some facts about kids with impulsive behaviors.
- 30 Impulse Control Strategies for Kids
- 10 Tips Help you Communicate with your Impulsive Child
- Must-Read Books on Executive Function Skills
What is Impulse Control?
Impulse control is the ability to resist an impulse, desire, or temptation and to regulate its translation into action (APA)
When kids lack impulse control, they tend to act hurriedly and without adequate reflection on the possible consequences.
Impulse control is also known as response inhibition.
Response inhibition is one of an important set of skills known as executive functions. These executive skills are cognitive processes (or brain-based skills) that we use in our everyday life and allow us to perform tasks: planning, problem-solving, decision-making, or remembering instructions, just to cite some examples.
Impulse control is one of the first executive skills to develop (between 6 and 12 months) and one of the last to reach full maturation in early adulthood.
There are lots of reasons why your child may act impulsively, like excitement, frustration, fatigue, lack of skills, or immaturity.
In some cases, though, there are other underlying problems.
One of the common causes of impulsive behavior is ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Other developmental disorders and mental health issues may also lead to impulsive behaviors.
Kids who struggle with impulse control may also have problems with other executive skills like emotional regulation, planning, prioritizing, time management, or persisting to achieve goals.
The prefrontal cortex in our brain plays a vital role when it comes to executive functions.
Since this area is not fully developed till young adulthood, it is easy to see why many authors say that parents and educators need to “lend” their frontal lobes to their children / students, until they are able to self-manage and become independent.
Some Facts About Kids with Impulsive Behaviors
This is a testimonial from one of my readers. What a parent with ADHD remembers from her own childhood:
- Kids have big feelings they often don’t know what to do with.
- Young kids act on their big feelings using their bodies rather than words due to their limited vocabulary.
- Without knowing the right words to express themselves, their bodies will act and do the talking by acting on impulses.
- Kids don’t mean to be impulsive.
- Kids often don’t realize they are acting impulsively.
- Kids can’t control the actual feeling of impulsiveness.
- Kids don’t realize it’s too late until after they act on their impulsiveness.
- Children may hurt themselves and others by acting on their impulses.
- Self-control methods for kids can be learned and eventually self-regulated.
- Children need the help of disciplined adults to learn proper self-control.
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30 Impulse Control Strategies for Kids
If your child or student is struggling with impulse control issues these strategies will assist both you and your child to cope better with this executive skill weakness and, in some cases, even improve it.
- Keep Calm and in Control
Remember you are trying to teach your child how to control their impulses, so it wouldn’t be a great way to start by losing your balance.
- Remember your child or student is not being naughty, they just can’t control their impulses.
- Consider assessing your own executive functioning skills.
It may be an eye-opening experience that will also help you understand how to help your child better.
Dawson & Guare have a book entitled The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success. It is a book for adults. I actually read this book before I went through their version for children. It may help you assess your own executive function skills and understand how to work better with your kid. And, it has so much practical advice that it can also be useful for kids.
- Choose specific tasks that you will focus on.
It is great that we want to help our kids improve their impulse control, but that is a very abstract goal that you can’t really quantify.
You need to be more specific, for example, “Jim will work on his homework and complete it by 5pm” or “Jane will work on her homework without interruptions for X minutes”
Choosing specific tasks will also help you understand what accommodations you may need to make or how you need to support your child to achieve them.
- Set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) for those tasks
- Identify your baseline.
As with any behavior modification intervention, you need to know where you stand right now, to able able to track your success in the future.
Related reading: ABC Behavior Tracker & Scatter Plot
- Make a plan, write it down, and assess how your strategies are working.
When we are trying to modify a behavior (decrease it, increase it, make it happen, or extinguish it), there are three variables we can play with:
- A= behavior antecedents
- B= behavior
- C= consequence (what happens after the behavior).
As I mentioned in point 4, we need to focus on specific tasks or behaviors that we want our impulsive child to improve. The following tips will each touch upon one of those three variables.
Antecedent of Behavior or Modifying the Environment
- Modify those aspects of the environment that may be distracting your child from their objectives.
You will need to assess what is distracting your child, and remove those distractors to help them focus:
- remove toys from the homework area
- store away tablets and other technology
- no sibling watching t.v. in the background
- Establish clear family rules and make sure they know them and understand what is expected from them.
- Use visual supports or cues that remind them of a routine, task, or activity, like:
- Visual schedules
- Reminder Cards
These are some tips to make tasks (behaviors) easier.
- Break long tasks into smaller ones
Tip: You may need to check over a few days how long your child or student can stay on task. It will help you assess what the length of each individual task should be.
- Create “To Do” lists
If your child gets easily distracted, it may help them to have visual supports that remind them what they need to focus on
- Supervise your child while you are working on improving impulse control.
Don’t get too complacent.
The fact that your child managed to achieve his goals a couple of times doesn’t mean it will happen again tomorrow.
Make sure you continue your supervision until the skill performance consolidates.
Kids need to understand the following:
- When your child acts on their impulses, there will be consequences.
- Consequences can go beyond parental discipline and punishment.
- When your child acts impulsively, it could temporarily affect their relationships.
- Playing with other kids and making friends may be more challenging when your child doesn’t practice self-control.
- There is nothing wrong with them, and these feelings are normal for all kids (provide reassurance to your child).
- Reward success.
This is a very basic tool but one of the most successful ones that we have in behavior modification.
When we want to make sure the desired behavior is more likely to happen again in the future we need to reward it.
There are different types of rewards: tangible (like prizes or treats) or intangible (like approval or praise).
Praising is the easiest one to apply and a very powerful social reward.
- Use Reward Charts, as visual support to help them stay on task and remind them of the consequences of desired behaviors ⇒ Learn how to use rewards systems effectively
Related reading: behavior problems in children
- Provide your child with self-regulation strategies
Teach them to use their inner voice to reflect and act more reflexively:
- What is my problem?
- What is my plan?
- How can I do it?
- How did this work?
- Teach them waiting skills
Impulsive kids tend to have problems waiting patiently.
Read 15 useful ideas to learn waiting skills
- Teach them problem-solving skills.
You could work on developing your kid´s problem-solving abilities by helping him:
- Identify a problem and describe it
- Generate alternatives
- Predict consequences for those alternatives
- Choose the alternative that best solves the problem
- Take action on it
There is a special type of problem solving: problem solving in a social context.
Social problem solving is more complex than solving non-social conflict because it requires an additional set of skills.
We need to take into consideration other people’s perspectives (their thoughts, emotions, and their background stories).
- The “Stop, Think, Do” mantra.
We’ve talked about this technique when we were discussing anger management techniques.
This strategy can also help us with impulse behavior:
- Stop before you act
- Think about the consequences
- Do if it is ok to go ahead.
- “If… Then” Scripts
Kids may get in trouble when they act impulsively when faced with difficult choices.
Self-instructions in the form of “if…then” or “when…then” can help them navigate risky situations.
For example, if you feel your child may be easily influenced to make a bad choice, you may rehearse an “If’…Then…” script:
“If a friend offers me a cigarette, then I can say “No, thanks, I’m not into that”
- Help them develop good communication skills
Playing with other kids and making friends may be more challenging when your child doesn’t practice self-control.
Recommended reading: How to Teach your Child to Be Assertive (it includes a free assertive communication checklist)
- Help them develop self-awareness
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection (source)
Reflecting on their behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses will help your kids achieve their goals and improve those behaviors you may have identified as key for their personal and social success.Asking your child simple questions about their emotions can help them work out their feelings and why they wanted to act on their impulses. It can also help them understand how their impulses make others feel.
Ask your child open-ended questions, such as:
- “How did that make you feel?”
- “Did you feel better after doing that?”
- “How do you think that made [name sibling or friend ] feel?”
- “What do you think Mom/Dad feels when you don’t control yourself?”
- “How do you feel when you’re able to control your body?”
- “How do your teachers feel when you interrupt them in class?”
- “How do your friends feel when you take their toys/books?”
- Teaching empathy
Teaching empathy is crucial for them to understand how their impulses affect others.
- When you help your child navigate their own emotions, they can better understand the feelings of others.
- When your child realizes their impulsive actions have negative impacts on others, they are more likely to stop and think before they act.
- Find ways to gently remind your children to think of themselves and others before acting impulsively.
- Show your child your support by remaining patient, forgiving, and adaptable to the ever-changing paces of every-day life.
Helping your Impulsive Child at School
These strategies will help your impulsive child through their school routines.
It is important to develop good communication channels with the school and work closely to help your child stay focused and organized:
- Use an assignment book to help them keep track of assignments
- Create a school routine that helps the child remember important tasks (for example, you may have a checklist to tick so that the child makes sure they are bringing home everything they need)
- Help them plan for long-term assignments
- Share and review (regularly) classroom rules
- Create communication channels to help parents monitor assignment completion from home.
It doesn´t help to take action when deadlines are over. We want to avoid failure and help them keep on track.
- Assess if assignments need to be modified.
- Teach them study techniques
How to take notes, make summaries, use mnemonics to remember information, or use flashcards, just to cite some examples
- Teach them techniques to perform better in exams/tests
10 Tips Help you Communicate with your Impulsive Child
These are a few tips to help you communicate with your child when they have behaved impulsively.
- Call your child by their first name.
- Use a firm but calm voice when addressing the issue.
- With smaller children, kneel to their level, eye-to-eye.
- Use short sentences when speaking to them.
- Be kind, but assertive.
- Read their body language and be mindful of your own body language.
- Relax your muscles and breathe deeply.
- Feeling angry or upset is normal; acting on your anger toward your child is not.
- If your child has difficulty responding, gently reassure them.
- Guide your child by reassuring them of your gentle presence for them.
Here are some useful talking points to use when speaking to your child after they acted on an impulse:
- “I may understand how you feel. I’ve been through this, too.”
- “I’m here to listen. You can tell me anything.”
- “We can figure this out together. You aren’t alone.”
- “I can help you make this better for everyone, including you.”
- “You can trust me. I’m here to help you.”
Other Impulse Control Resources
- Smart but Scattered (age group: 4 to 13 y.o.) by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
This is the BEST book for parents that I’ve read on executive skills. Comprehensive, easy to read, full of real-life examples. It is definitely a must-read if your child (or student) is struggling with executive functioning skills.
- Smart but Scattered Teens (age group: 14 to 19 y.o.) by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.
- The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.
This book is for adults. I actually read it before the one for kids, and I think they work well together.
Other interesting reading:
- Flipp the Switch. Strengthen Executive Function Skills
This is another GREAT resource with practical solutions and templates
- Flexible and Focused. Teaching Executive Function Skills to Individuals with Autism and Attention Disorders
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