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Impulse Control in Children

Three ideas that help parents handle the impulsive child.

"The basic premise that children must learn about emotions is that all feelings are OK to have; however, only some reactions are OK." –Dan Siegel

Earlier today, a mom called me regarding her son’s lack of impulse control. Her son, Bryan, is 6 years old and apparently punched a child on the playground. Of course, I know there’s always more to the story, but clearly her son needs help learning how to slow down and make better choices even when he’s angry or emotionally charged.

But before I began working with this mom, I wanted to remind her of three guiding principles regarding emotional development and impulse control, such as:

1. Brains are not fully formed till the mid-20s, and logical thinking comes online (just the beginning) around age 4 years old. What this means is your child isn’t likely intentionally behaving poorly, he [or she] is simply early on in the process of training his brain to respond more constructively versus destructively when faced with challenging feelings.

2. Children who “behave badly” simply don’t have the skills yet to handle the challenging emotions they're experiencing. We need to focus on skill development (not shame, blame, or guilt for whatever happened).

3. Schools that are worthy of your time and energy are teaching children how to handle their challenging emotions in the classroom (and playground). This means learning self-awareness and building emotional intelligence (social and emotional learning) to foster responsible decision-making abilities.

Most children respond without thinking, which causes problems from Bryan punching his friend to another child saying something he cannot unsay. (I always explain the idea of toothpaste when it’s squeezed out—it cannot be put back in the tube. The same is true when we say something mean; we cannot unsay it. Of course, we can apologize, but that’s different.) Helping a child learn how to slow down, stop, and make a better choice is sophisticated work—and nothing we need to be embarrassed about (see my book, The Emotionally Healthy Child).

In the scenario mentioned, it’s a first-grade student who is just beginning his educational career and learning how to make smart choices with his big emotions. The sooner we equip this student with consistent coaching, strategies, and guidance on how his emotions work—the sooner he can begin developing self-awareness and making different choices when the inevitable feelings of frustration or anger arise.

Of course, as adults – we know, that emotional health is a lifelong endeavor and he’s just beginning on the path.


Healy, M (2018). The Emotionally Healthy Child. Novato, CA: New World Library

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