Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Childhood as an Impulse Control Disorder (Part 1)

Is childhood itself an impulse-control disorder?

This quasi-facetious title is meant to highlight something essential to understanding childhood. Namely, that--more than anything else--what distinguishes children from adults is in their ability to control impulses. Put simply, the younger the child, the less developed the ability; the older, the greater the ability. And when the child eventually becomes an adult, presumably this capability has been more or less mastered.

Fundamentally, civilizing or socializing children depends on the capacity of our institutions (particularly that of family and school) to teach them to curb or eradicate many of the behaviors deeply embedded in them. If, ultimately, they're to function adequately in society, what--universally--is natural for them needs to be almost completely subdued. It's almost mandatory that their original "biological scripts" be rewritten. If, specifically, they're to fit in with others and, more generally, into society at large, they just can't continue to do what their inborn nature might dictate.

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That is, from within the mind of a young child, if something is wanted it ought to be pursued--and immediately, too (and, further, with little or no regard for consequences). Additionally, if something is keenly felt, it should be acted out at once. So when angry, hit or scream. When sad, cry. When afraid, run or hide. When disgusted, make a face. Such impulsive acting-out is nothing more than being true to our inborn nature.

bawlingIn this respect, impulse and instinct are virtually inseparable. But unfortunately, we all learn over time that doing what comes naturally is, typically, not in our best interests, nor is it acceptable to the world around us. Well-adjusted behaviors--vs. developmentally normal but pragmatically "disordered" behaviors--necessitate all sorts of self-imposed restraints (call them, if you will, "inner checks and balances"). So impulsive behavior, while it may be totally natural and reflective of where, in a sense, we should be at any particular stage of development, is nonetheless neither safe nor healthy for us--or even appropriate in helping us negotiate the difficult process of finding our proper place in society.

And though our impulsiveness may to varying degrees be tolerated by our parents, it still needs to be taken charge of--or reined in--by them. If not, how will we avoid ultimately being rejected by those around us? After all, by definition unruly children don't play by the rules. And generally they don't share as much as they're "supposed to" either. Nor are they very adept at suppressing their aggressive tendencies--or restraining or disciplining themselves. It's simply not part of who they are.

Again, impulsive behavior is innate--wired into us at birth. It can be seen as the pre-installed software that enables our organism to function. And since it's how we're "made," it's certainly nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. The problem is that such impulsivity is primitive. It optimizes our chances of survival--but far more in the wild than in civilization. And this is exactly why, in the context of modern society, it warrants being viewed as dysfunctional, or "disordered." For such impulsivity, pre-programmed as it is for another time and place, is precisely what gets in the way of our becoming fully socialized.

If, finally, we're to get along in the world, we have no choice but to adapt to what the world requires of us. And so, contrary to how we've been "constructed," our unwary impulsivity needs systematically to be disciplined out of us. In fact, responsible parenting literally demands that parents bring this impulsivity under control--that they teach us to regulate (if not outright repress) it by correcting us almost every time we follow our internal dictates (i.e., what we'd do "naturally" if not subject to others' reactions). For example, the constitutional inclination to cry or strike out when someone hurts us is automatic . . . until we're motivated--through external conditioning--to inhibit such expression.

aggr. childrenKids with ADHD represent a case in point here. Their marked inability to control their impulses can wreak havoc both on themselves and their relationships, as well as cause all sorts of problems for others, both at home and school (and anywhere else their wayward impulses might take them). Without malicious intent, their behaviors can easily end up being "anti-social--for example, heedlessly expressing their creativity through graffiti; or acting in public in rowdy, obstreperous, or otherwise obnoxious ways; or even punching out someone who's just said something upsetting to them. In consequence, if such children are ever going to fit it (not to say, thrive), they'll require an inordinate amount of parental training and discipline, and be subject to all kinds of behavioral modification. And if all this external regulation still fails sufficiently to reduce their maladaptive behaviors, they'll also need to be put on medication--all in the expanded effort to bring their behavior up to acceptable childhood standards.

But even these standards, though far more adaptive and age-appropriate, aren't adequate to enable children to meet the demands that society will one day make on them. So all parents, if they're to be responsible, need to set firm limits on their children when they're behaving impulsively. And this impulsivity can include acting foolishly, imprudently, gullibly, mindlessly, rashly, and (as is so frequently the case with ADHD children) recklessly as well. Moreover, it's only right that parents exert such authority. For unless their child's impulsive, unrestrained behavior is brought under control, that child will have problems making (and keeping) friends, experience difficulty in applying themselves to anything that doesn't "capture" their attention, will repeatedly antagonize others (most notably their parents--thus weakening this all-important attachment bond), and so on and so on.

 Note: Part 2 of this post will deal with (1) how all addictive behavior--in the addict's inability to control strong, though self-defeating, impulses--warrants understanding as a regression to (or fixation in) childhood; and (2) why it's essential that parents learn to be as compassionate as possible when their children act impulsively.

To explore other posts I've done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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