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Understanding Impulse Control

The science behind impulse control, and what to do to help your child.

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Family therapist Craig Knippenberg vividly remembers the day a fifth-grade boy named Tommy attended a group therapy class he was leading. Tommy said he hadn’t been invited to a birthday party since the first grade. He told Knippenberg “I used to think it was everyone else’s fault for not inviting me, but now I know it’s because of me.”

He was a bright, athletic boy, but according to Tommy’s parents, he had intense emotional reactions and showed a lack of empathy for the kids with whom he was in conflict.

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Knippenberg was confident that, in time, Tommy would be invited to another birthday party. One of the components to helping make that happen, for Tommy and others, is learning to control one’s impulses.

In his book, Wired and Connected: Brain Based Solutions to Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success, Knippenberg shares what he has learned about children’s developing brains throughout his nearly 40 years practicing child and family therapy in Denver.

Impulse control is the job of the frontal lobe of the brain, which Knippenberg refers to as the “President.” “For physical and social survival’s sake, one of the most important ‘Presidential’ abilities is the capacity to stop our immediate impulses and think about potential outcomes to our proposed behaviors,” he says in the book. While impulse control is just one piece of your child’s complicated brain puzzle, understanding it can help you learn how to help your child.

Understanding Impulse Control

In layman’s terms, when the impulse to yell out, fart, or grab something travels up to the frontal lobe of the brain, the brain sends a message that says, “Let’s do that silently,” or “Slow down.” However, for some children it’s neurologically more difficult to control their impulses, depending on age, gender, and other factors. “There’s a much smaller percentage that are just being disobedient,” Knippenberg says. “[Kids] do care, but they just can’t stop in the middle.”

Julie Hagy-Hancock, a special education consultant/advocate at the Boulder-based company Success By Design, sees impulse control stem from a variety of sources…environmental, emotional, a child’s biological make-up, trauma, or a combination of factors. A lack of impulse control commonly displays itself in both physical and verbal ways, such as calling out, commenting inappropriately, talking back, eloping (running away), not keeping hands to self, Hagy-Hancock says.

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Preschool children and kids entering puberty have the hardest time controlling their impulses, Knippenberg says. As kids enter their teens, “their dopamine levels drop in half,” Knippenberg says, referring to the chemical in the brain that research says is connected to impulse control. Exercise and pleasurable activities release dopamine in the brain to help with impulse control, but to further complicate matters, “For kids that crave the pleasure of social connection, the urge to chitchat overrides their ‘President’s’ message to stay on task,” Knippenberg says in the book.

Genetically, impulse control develops on the X chromosome, meaning that girls (XX) will get two copies, while boys (XY) will always get one copy. “On average, this puts girls in about the 75th percentile for impulse control, while boys are approximately at the 50th percentile,” Knippenberg explains.

Strengthen Impulse Control

Knippenberg notes that kids with “low Presidential functioning” will not just grow out of impulse control problems without intervention. Here are some behavioral interventions to consider.

Make expectations clear. “Children on the lower end [of Presidential functioning] need clear rules and expectations spelled out before, during, and after a given activity,” says Knippenberg.

Try the 1-2-3 Behavior system. The book 1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective and Happy Parenting by registered clinical psychologist Thomas Phelan, contains a simple system that countless caregivers have used to strengthen impulse control. When misbehavior starts, the count of one serves as a warning; number two is a reminder of the coming consequence; three, the consequence is enforced.

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Cut off overly rowdy behavior quickly. “Like a freight train, it’s a lot easier to stop one when it’s starting up than when it’s running on full steam,” according to Wired and Connected. When your child starts acting up, Knippenberg suggests implementing a behavior management system like the 1-2-3 system, or another action to redirect behavior.

Coordinate behavior management between home and school. “Schools have great systems for behavior management so try using the system from school at home,” Knippenberg suggests.

“Mindfulness practice, self-reflecting, and breath work are school-based strategies that I’m starting to see more and more of,” Hagy-Hancock says. “The teaching, integrating, and practicing of these skills seem to have a positive impact on many students with impulse control difficulties.”

In the school setting, Hagy-Hancock advises the student’s team—teachers, staff, student, and parents—“look deeply into the behaviors and the functions of those behaviors.” For example: Is there a way we can teach a “replacement” behavior that satisfies that underlying need? Does the behavior occur primarily during a certain subject, or time of day? Are there underlying emotional and/or learning problems?

“This deeper knowledge of a child allows us to shift from a reactive to proactive model of supporting students,” Hagy-Hancock explains. “Instead of reacting to the behavior, we know what is underlying that behavior, and thus, we can be very intentional about setting up conditions/supports for the student to thrive.”

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Knippenberg notes that for some kids, medication might be needed if their lack of impulse control is extreme enough that it risks their safety. If they have been diagnosed with a condition such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or ADHD, more specific measures may need to be taken, depending on their unique situations. He advises, though, to “start with external structure first. The less internal structure you have, the more external structure you need.”

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