Why Impulse Control Is Harder Than Ever

Many young children struggle with impulse control. These tips and suggestions will help manage behavior and maximize learning potential.

By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Children act out in all kinds of ways, from tantrums to aggression to embarrassing remarks. Often, such outbursts may seem like an inevitability of childhood. Yet according to neuroscience researchers Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, who co-authored Welcome To Your Child’s Brain, "childhood self-control is twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement.” So the question persists: How do we help our children manage their impulsivity? Three significant factors play into a child’s impulsivity profile: temperament, executive functioning, and development.


Certain characteristics, such as child activity level, adaptability, mood intensity, and attention span, are instinctive rather than a result of parenting. Take note of your child’s temperament by identifying his reactions to situations or stimuli. Reflect on your own temperament and how it matches (or mismatches) your child’s: Recognize his or her feelings as separate from yours, but still valid. Taking this into consideration may affect your response to your child’s impulsivity. A shy child’s hesitancy can be more frustrating to the extrovert parent than it would likely be to the introvert parent, who would more easily understand and relate to the child’s temperament. In this case, a parent with a very controlled personality might misconstrue an impulsive child's actions as defiance or refusal to listen.

Executive Functioning Skills

To an extent, some executive functioning skills — including the ability to think, plan, problem-solve, and execute tasks — are also inborn. For example, some children struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) while others suffer from hyposensitivity (when a child is “under-sensitive”). In general, overstimulation of executive functioning skills leads to unwanted consequences: Children have less available mental capacity to control impulses and less mental energy available for learning.

What can parents do? While you cannot control the temperament your child is born with, you can foster and support executive functioning capabilities. Early childhood and developmental psychology expert Dr. Becky Bailey believes the key to developing impulse control (and to allowing more mental energy to be available for learning) is to help your child respond with the thinking-planning part of his brain — with his executive function skills — as opposed to simply responding reactively in a flight-or-fight manner or with emotional defenses such as name-calling.

Development and Impulsivity

Ages Birth-2: Even newborns have ways to regulate overstimulation (e.g., turning away from light or noise). Observe these calming forces and build off the skills your baby already has — this will build on his capacity to put a moment between impulse and action. Toddlers struggle to balance their intense drive for independence with recognition of their own incompetence. When your child acts out (e.g., hitting or biting), stop the behavior with short, firm commands: “No hitting. Hitting hurts.” Then validate his frustration or anger and model appropriate ways to express them, such as throwing a soft ball at a target or roaring like a tiger who then gets quiet. Such strategies establish neural connections between survival instinct impulses and the executive brain’s understanding of limits and boundaries. 

Ages 3-4: Preschoolers are discovering the power of language to assert their needs and desires despite sometimes overwhelming emotions. Help your child develop strategies to withstand temptation; for delayed gratification, have her think about the desired item as a less tempting inanimate object. These problem-solving strategies allow your child to connect her emotional impulses with her executive functioning brain (“I have ways to succeed”). Over time, she will learn how to experience emotions instead of leading with them.

Ages 5-6: Promote self-control through physical games and experiences, as opposed to expecting your child to sit and focus for long periods of time. Aamodt and Wang suggest that physical activity boosts academic performance, so support learning through control-building games like Red Light/Green Light or Simon Says.    

Ages 7-8: Seven- and eight-year-olds possess highly developed imaginative play capabilities, which are a perfect forum to build concentration and self-regulated rule structures. When your child steps out of bounds, help her learn ways to soothe herself. Model taking a break, finding a new focus (like naming all the colors in the room), counting backwards to reengage the thinking part of the brain, and physically moving to redirect mental energy. 

Ages 9 and up: At this point, children are honing distinct interests and personalities. Support your child to set and achieve his own goals. This not only builds self-control and fosters executive function skills, but also helps him learn rules for successful management. 

5 More Ways To Encourage Self-Control

  1. Teach your child to talk to herself. New research from the University of Toronto Scarborough states that inner voice plays an important role in controlling impulsive behavior. Children with ADHD acquire internalized speech later than most children, which may account for their weakened ability to control their impulses, according to findings by Laura Berk.
  2. Play memory games. Research from Stanford University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands links improved impulse control to short-term memory training. Enhanced memory lightens the “cognitive load” of the frontal cortex, allowing it to manage impulsivity more successfully. Check out these reading apps for kids or games on ImproveMemory.org.
  3. Be a role model. If you spill cereal at breakfast, try taking a few deep breaths and expressing your feelings rationally: “I dropped the cereal everywhere, and we are late. I am so angry! I need to sit and take a few deep breaths before I clean up.”
  4. Stay positive. Harsh criticisms and judgments stir up either emotional or survival reactions from your child, neither of which allow executive functioning to advance. Award praise when praise is due and provide gentle guidance and support for missteps. 
  5. Get moving. Exercise and movement affect focus and attention by boosting levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. Regular physical activity also improves concentration and motivation, decreases hyperactivity and impulsivity, and improves memory.  

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Photo: Anthony Lee/Media Bakery

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