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When you're in line at the grocery store and your 6-year-old says, "Someone smells bad," you can blame it on poor impulse control. And that guy who cut in front of you in line at the store? He probably didn't learn impulse control as a child. The good news is, parents can help kids learn new skills to improve their impulse control as they grow and develop.
How Impulse Control Develops
Impulse control develops over time and involves several different factors. Jennifer Little, a former teacher with a doctorate in educational psychology, said the factors that influence impulse control development are "biology, parental guidance and behavior management." Since caregivers can't change a child's genetic predisposition, it's important to look at how behaviors are being managed. When kids receive a consequence for misbehavior, it helps them to stop and think before repeating the behavior again.
Skills Needed to Control Impulsive Behaviors
Kids need to learn specific skills to control their impulsive behaviors. When they lack these skills, they aren't able to control their impulses. "Impulse control involves several aspects of developmental learning," Little said. She said that social skills, delayed gratification, attention and memory skills, oral language skills, cause and effect and risk assessment are among skills necessary to control impulses. For example, a child with a poor attention span isn't likely to think about someone else's point of view. As a result, he likely won't think about how taking a toy from his friend may hurt his friend's feelings. Learning how to improve his attention skills may help him control his impulses.
There isn't a magic number at which kids suddenly gain impulse control. Instead, it is a process that develops over time. Fran Walfish, a child and family psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent," explained: "The toddler phase of development, beginning at age 18 months and rounding out at age 4, is the period of time when children are practicing and learning delayed gratification and impulse control." It's normal for 3-year-old children to scream, lash out in anger and get easily excited. However, as children approach the age of 4, they should be developing improved ability to manage their impulses, and hitting and tantrums should subside.
Verbal Impulse Control
Verbal impulse control takes longer to develop. It's normal for an 8-year-old to occasionally blurt things out in class or have difficulty waiting for his turn in a conversation. But by later middle school, this should be resolved. "Throughout grade school, kids continue learning how to express their feelings verbally and in later middle school, they develop verbal impulse control. It's important to note, however, that some people never master the ability to control their impulses," Walfish said.
As babies grow into toddlers, it is a critical time for parents to teach them skills to begin learning how to control their impulses. Walfish suggested that parents show, not just tell, toddlers how to control their impulses. "If a 2 year-old throws a crayon, Mommy should ask her child to pick it up. When her child refuses, as she likely will, Mommy should put her hand over her youngster's hand and move the child through the motions of picking up the crayon," Walfish said. She noted that it is important to "always follow it with praise."
Teaching Impulse Control in Older Children
As children grow older, it is important that they continue to receive consequences to help them manage their impulses. For example, when kids blurt out answers in class, teachers need to address this with a reprimand or another consequence. Little said these types of consequences teach older children how to begin monitoring their own behavior. "Children learn to internalize language skills [self-monitoring behavior] gradually from kindergarten through third grade; by fourth grade, adults expect them to be able to control their behavior. Should they not have those skills mastered by 10 years of age, they will typically be getting into trouble on a regular basis," Little said.