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While impulsive behavior is common in children, it can have an impact well beyond the childhood years.
Despite Britney Spears’ incredible success, she is also known for her considerably impulsive behavior. One of the best known examples of this impulsivity was her quick marriage in 2004 to Jason Alexander in Las Vegas. The marriage would later be annulled after 55 hours.
Regardless of his lack of boxing experience, Ernest Hemingway would accept to fight Wallace Stevens after an argument. It was not much of a surprise when he lost.
Other than his acting skills, Charlie Sheen is also known for his unpredictability. His impulsive behavior and criticism of the producers of his show “Two and a Half Men” would ultimately lead to his firing.
While impulsive behavior is particularly common in young children who are still struggling with self-control issues, many children display impulsivity at one point in their lives. But here’s the problem: if your child does not learn how to control impulsivity, their behavior can affect their social, psychological and education outcomes.
Types of impulsive behavior in children
Almost every parent has encountered impulsive behavior in their children. In reality, all parents have encountered this behavior because each and every child passes through this phase of their development.
Impulsive behavior in children refers to the tendency to act without thinking about the consequences of one’s action. It could look like:
- Constantly interrupting others.
- Trouble following rules (for example, your child could completely disregard well-known rules both at home and in school).
- Leaving tasks unfinished (for example, they could start a task then leave everything where it is and move on to something else).
- Acting without thinking (for example, your child could cross the road without ensuring that there is no danger).
- Speaking without thinking (for example, they could say something completely untrue or even something that makes no sense).
- Being easily distracted.
- Reacting disproportionately when things do not go their way.
All children show some form of impulsivity at one point of their lives for the simple reason that their brains are still developing. However, if your child does not learn impulse control, their behavior can affect them well beyond the childhood years.
How impulsivity in children affects them
Impulsive behavior can affect your child in different ways. It can have an impact on:
1) Their academic performance: Impulsivity in children influences their ability to stay focused and to follow instructions, directly impacting their learning outcomes. They may also be viewed as “problem children” by the school authorities, thereby influencing how these authorities react to them.
2) Their social development: Children who are too impulsive may have a harder time making and keeping friends.
3) Their psychological development: Impulsivity in children is often associated with their inability to deal with their emotions in a socially appropriate manner. If a child does not learn to process big emotions, they could end up struggling with these emotions throughout their lives, increasing the likelihood of mental health issues.
4) Safety issues: There is a greater risk for impulsive children to put themselves and others in danger because they tend to “act first and think later”.
Impulsivity in children can also lead to long-term negative outcomes. Several studies, have found that children who display impulsive behavior are also more likely to turn to risky behavior such as drug abuse, unprotected sex, and criminal behavior.
Before you can help your child to work on their impulsive behavior, it is important to understand where that behavior comes from.
What the research says about impulsivity in children
Several researchers have attempted to understand why some kids display more impulsive behavior than others. They have found that impulsivity in children can be explained by:
1) Genetic factors: some studies suggest that children who have a family history of ADHD or mental health issues are at greater risk of impulsive behavior.
2) Developmental factors: A seven-year-old will show greater self-control and better emotion-regulation skills than a three year old.
This is because these skills are developed as your child grows. Some degree of impulsive behavior is therefore normal in young children, who later develop impulse control skills. Older children may display impulsive behavior due to development delays.
Damages or abnormalities in this part of the brain can therefore lead to impulsive behavior. Children with neurodevelopment issues such as ADHD or autism are also more likely to display impulsive behavior.
4) Environmental factors: The environment plays a major role in children’s behavior. A child exposed to a stressful environment (violent, abuse, neglect) may have a harder time controlling their impulses.
5) Personality: Kids are all different and they display different behavior depending on their personalities. Just like some kids tend to be introverted, some kids have a naturally impulsive temperament than others.
This article has everything you need to know about how your child’s personality influences their behavior and, more importantly, it provides tips to help you parent according to that personality.
Being aware of the different factors that influence impulsivity in children can make it easier to deal with it.
Irrespective of the reasons behind your child’s impulsive behavior, we now know that certain strategies can help children struggling with impulse control. Here are several things you can do at home to help your child practice their self-control.
Five things that you can do to manage impulsivity in children
Most children learn impulse control by practicing skills such as their self-control skills. In other words, most children need parental guidance or guidance from the adults in their lives to reduce their impulsive behavior.
Here are five things that you can do if your child is struggling with impulse control.
1) Set clear expectations to manage impulsivity in children
All children need rules and limits to guide their behavior, and this is especially true for children struggling with impulse control. They need to know what is expected of them, but those expectations need to be in line with that they are actually capable of.
In other words, expecting a child struggling with impulsivity to remain concentrated for long periods of time can only lead to frustration and to greater impulsive behavior.
Breaking down tasks and expecting them to remain concentrated for shorter periods of time, which you can later increase with time, is a more effective strategy.
2) Ensure that your child is getting sufficient physical activity
Although further studies are still required, several researchers suggest that physical activity has a positive effect on cognitive performance, especially among children whose cognitive capacities are not fully developed.
Physical activity is thought to improve concentration and focus, behavior, and academic performance in children with poor impulse control.
By ensuring that your child gets sufficient physical activity every day, you can help reduce their impulsive behavior.
3) Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective behavior management strategies because it focuses on promoting positive behavior, meaning the behavior expected, rather than on negative behavior.
Multiple studies have shown that when used appropriately, positive reinforcement is a powerful strategy with lasting effects.
That said, it is important to choose your child’s behavior calendar and behavior incentives wisely, to watch out for the most common pitfalls you are likely to encounter, and to adopt a strategy that increases your chances of success. The Positive Behavior Kit is a step-by-step guide to help you foster your child’s positive behavior.
4) Reinforce your child’s social and emotional skills
One study that evaluated social and emotional learning interventions in schools found that the studies that focused on improving children’s knowledge of emotions and interpersonal relationships were highly beneficial for children and largely helped reduce problem behavior.
Impulsivity in children is often a sign that they lack the coping skills necessary to deal with uncomfortable situations, and problem behavior is almost always associated with poor emotion regulation skills.
In other words, a child who is feeling anxious may display impulsive behavior in an attempt to deal with that anxiety, meaning that they can only reduce their impulsive behavior if they learn how to deal with big emotions such as anger and anxiety.
Developing emotion regulation is a long process that requires kids to understand different emotions in themselves and others, to become aware of how those emotions feel in the body, and to try out and choose their own coping mechanisms to deal with emotion-provoking situations.
Tools such as The Emotions Kit have all the resources you need to help your child learn to deal with their emotions more effectively.
5) Try mindfulness to reduce impulsivity in children
The studies that have focused on mindfulness in kids have found that this practice increases concentration and focus, reduces anxiety, improves problem solving skills and reduces problem behaviors.
Books with strong messages are an easy way to introduce kids to mindfulness. The Important Book, The Lion and the Little Red Bird and The Story of Ferdinand are all great books which do not specifically focus on mindfulness but relay strong messages about peace, kindness, friendship and the importance of everyday things.
Activities that require focus and concentration are great for children struggling with impulse control. This link has lots of fun and high-quality executive function printables for kids that will encourage them to focus on the present moment.
Many parents have also successfully used strategies such as the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness grounding strategy to help reduce impulsivity in children. This strategy challenges your child to name:
- 5 things that they can see around them
- 4 things that they can touch
- 3 things that they can hear
- 2 things that they can smell
- 1 thing that they can taste
Here is a free visual copy that you can download and use at home.
Last thoughts on impulsivity in children
Impulsive behavior in children is quite common, but it can have disastrous effects on their social, psychological and academic outcomes.
The good news is that simple strategies, such as the ones described above, can help reduce impulsivity in children. Also, the general recommendations to support children’s well being such as a balanced diet, sufficient physical activity and sufficient sleep all have an impact on children’s impulse control.
That said, impulsivity in children can also be a sign of something else. If your child’s behavior keeps getting worse, or if you are worried about their lack of impulse control, please speak to your family therapist or to a child development professional.
Remember that professionals can provide tools adapted to your child’s specific situation and can therefore help you deal more effectively with impulsive behavior.
 Disorder-specific dissociation of orbitofrontal dysfunction in boys with pure conduct disorder during reward and ventrolateral prefrontal dysfunction in boys with pure ADHD during sustained attention