My second article in the Positive Parenting series I am writing for SuperMama. You can find it on their website in English and Arabic

As part of taking a positive approach towards parenting we previously discussed understanding your toddlers’ temperament. In this article, we follow the same approach and why try to understand our toddler’s impulse control; in other words, why toddlers can’t seem to stop themselves.

What is impulse control?

Even though it may seem at times that your child doesn’t listen to a word you say, remember that your child isn’t out to get you. If you sometimes feel that your child just can’t seem to control his actions, you’re probably right but it’s for a good reason! That’s because at this young age your child is still beginning to develop impulse control, which is a person’s ability to suppress or restrain himself from doing something, like concentrating on your work while shutting out distractions. It also includes the concept of delayed gratification which is the ability to wait in order to get something you want.

Why do toddlers seem to lose control and “not listen”? 

As a parent you may be thinking that your toddler has difficulty restraining himself or waiting for things and you have a point! That’s because these abilities depend on a part of the brain called the frontal lobes, which develop slower than other parts of the brain. By age two development is underway but won’t be well developed till age 7, some reports even state that it continues to it’s mature form by the age of 21.

As a toddler, your child is struggling to control his emotions and actions.  Lack of impulse control is what causes your child to reach for the remote yet again even though you already said “No” several times. It’s when your child persists to want the cookie NOW! And when emotions become too hard to handle and result in tantrums. Understanding what your child is and isn’t capable of can help you have appropriate expectations and result in fewer situations of conflict between you and your child.

So why is impulse control important?

Won’t most children outgrown this phase? Yes, most children will, however the quality and their ability to regulate their emotions and actions depends largely on their experiences as young children. It’s the difference in early experiences that will result in developmental differences later in life. A classic study called the Marshmallow Test was conducted where 4-year olds were asked to stay in a room for a few minutes with a marshmallow and not eat it. They were told if they didn’t eat it by the time the observer came back, they would get the marshmallow in addition to another one. Of course, some children ended up eating the whole thing as soon as the observer left and never looked back. However, there were those who waited and got them both. The interesting part is that years later researchers caught up with the same group of children, who were now in their teens.  Surprisingly, those who had controlled themselves and waited as children were more self-confident, popular among peers, able to cope better with frustration and more successful in school than those who ate the marshmallow straight away.

What You Can Do:

  • Set few clear rules: The more things are off-limits the more likely your child will end up misbehaving. Constantly saying “No” decreases it’s effectiveness when you really need to use it. Try to select few clear rules that cover safety and will allow your child to play and explore at the same time.
  • Provide an appropriate environment:Now that you know why your child sometimes has difficulty controlling his impulses make sure your setting is child friendly. Put objects you don’t want him to touch out of reach and bring along a story or box of crayons when going out to give your child age appropriate alternatives.
  • Remind him of the rules: Don’t anticipate misbehavior but remind your child positively about what is expected of him in certain situations. For example, explaining that she can help you find the items in the supermarket but no running down the aisle. This way you positively redirect your child and give her an alternative.
  • Practice turn taking: Whether it’s with you or a sibling, encourage your child to wait for his turn. This will help foster impulse control as your child eventually learns to trust the situation and that he will get his turn. Remember to always follow through or give an honest explanation if you can’t.
  • Play games that take time: Doing puzzles or using building blocks can help your child learn patience as she works to reach her desired goal.

I hope this article helps you understand your child’s developmental abilities to control his impulse. Remember that when your child feels overwhelmed, sometimes comfort is more effective than correction.

Additional Reading

Bright from the Start by Jill Stamm


3 thoughts on “Understanding your Child: Impulse Control

  1. I completely agree with your article. As a Early Childhood Education professional in a Early Head Start Program and parent of a 5 year old and 10 month old, I always observe teachers and parents such as my self stressing the importance of teaching children how to control their emotions, actions and reactions. Just last week my husband and I were discussing our 5 year old. I have to say that it was a bad week with her listening. I remember having to tell her just about at the close of every night to make sure she woke up with her listening ears and being prepared to do the right thing. For instance earlier in the day she asked me to polish her nails and I said not right now…well as the polish sat in front of her, she could not help but seek out how she could get her nails polished therefore she decided to polish her own nails. Well you can just imagine what happened…. She had nail polish all over her names and on the sleeper in our office. In her attempt to be a great problem solver she believed that all she needed to do was purely wash her hands and everything would be restored. However being a 5 year old, she wasn’t aware that nail polish did not come off immediately and now we had polish stained in our bathroom sink.

    I think that it is funny because we tend to have the most conversations about impulse control when discussing two year olds and teenagers but the reality is….this is a huge struggle 4 and 5 year olds… While they are stilling learning and for the most part have been introduce to concepts of right and wrong they still struggle with the idea of needing to fully explore their environments and learn through concrete experiences thus leading to the need to fulfill instant gratification.

    1. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment Aisha. I am a huge fan of the Head Start Program and the great work that’s being done 🙂
      That was really quite an experience you had with your daughter and the nail polish! 😀 It’s true we forget and think 4 year olds are all “grown up” and can control themselves more but the truth is they also need more time and attention. I work with 4 year olds and I still see how frustrated they can become in a second if someone grabs a toy that another child is playing with. It’s even more complex for them because, like your daughter’s experience, there’s a whole play processes going on. A 4 year old’s play is much more complex then a two year old’s and he takes play very seriously. As you said they are still struggling to find the balance between sticking to “right and wrong” and their natural need to explore and learning to postpone gratification.

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