Understanding your Child: Impulse Control

Understanding your Child: Impulse Control

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


The Marshmallow Test

The Stanford Marshmallow Test was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Standford University. The purpose of the experiment was to study when the control of deferred gratification, the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants, develops in children.

Each child was placed in a room with no distractions with just a table, chair and a treat (the marshmallow) and explained the rules. The children could eat the marshmallow if they wanted but were promised if they waited and didn’t eat it for 15 minutes they would get another marshmallow as well. Children developed self distracting methods like counting, covering their eyes or kicking the desk.

The outcome of the study showed that age does determine the development of deferred gratification. Furthermore, follow-up studies showed that children who had better impulse control “were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent”

This explains a lot to parents about why their toddlers seem so emotional and are prone to tantrums. Another interesting fact is that the part of the brain in charge of impulse control is located in the frontal lobes, which isn’t developed until children are 9 and continues to develop till the age of 21!

So, now that we understand why toddlers and preschoolers act this way. How can we help?

  • Give your baby a responsive and predictable environment. Your baby will learn that the environment is safe and her brain will focus on learning from new experiences.
  • Remove temptations. Now that we understand that some actions, like telling your toddler over and over again not to touch the vase yet she still runs over to touch it every time, just can’t be controlled. You can make life easier for your child and yourself by removing tempting objects from your child’s reach to minimize conflict situations.
  • Give your toddler independence and words to express himself. During this age your toddler is developing a feeling of independence and autonomy. Allow him to do things for himself and help around the house to develop his sense of confidence.  Also, help him identify feelings and words that express those feelings  “I feel sad” “I’m angry he took my toy”. Use situations when your child is going through tough emotions to label those feelings “I know you feel sad…” “You look happy, I see a big smile on your face”. This will help your toddler express himself and help avoid frustration in already difficult situations.
  • Help your child figure out solutions. Once your child is able to communicate with you and other children you can help her solve conflict on her own. Take your child through these simple steps when a conflict arises. 1. What is the problem? 2. What does your child think would be a good solution? 3. Does this solution suit everyone? 4. If not? then what else do you propose? 5. Finally, go through with it.

You may need to act as a moderator in the beginning and help propose solutions, but by just going through the steps you’re giving your child a way to express herself,  regulate her frustrations and develop her problem solving skills. Pretty soon you’ll only be supervising this procedure and lending a hand once in a while your child handles things on her own.

  • Explain the consequences. By explaining to your child the reasons behind rules and the consequences for misbehavior you are telling him what to expect and what you expect quite clearly. This helps your child develop self-regulatory skills and learn to manage his own behavior.
  • Model self controlling behavior. This is a technique that can be used in almost anything, you basically can’t ask your child to behave a certain way if you are behaving the absolute opposite. If you expect your child to be calm and self controlling then you should be as well! Try to count to 5 before rushing to correct your child, make sure you are calm and you speak in a low tone. your child will follow your example!

Remember that any “mistakes” your child does are all part of her learning experience. Your role is to be a supportive and positive guide and assistant. Make sure you try approach situations with a positive attitude especially if your child is having a difficult moment.

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