Inside the Impulsive Child: 8 tips on teaching kids to “train their brain”

If you are a parent, you know this story—you’ve seen it happen, or you’ve lived it yourself. You’re in the supermarket. A mom is pushing a shopping cart, accompanied by a young child. As she goes down the aisles, the child reaches out to the shelves and grabs anything he can get his hands on, throwing items in the cart faster than the mom can take them out, or just knocking them to the floor. The mom is clearly exhausted and frustrated, no match for her child’s energy and impulsiveness.

Guess what? I was that child! (That’s right, it’s not just boys.) I was the child who never sat still in school, who interrupted the teacher, who couldn’t wait her turn or stay on task. Delayed gratification? I couldn’t imagine the concept! Whatever thought popped into my mind came straight out of my mouth. Whatever I wanted, I reached out and touched. No wonder my mom sent me to camp for two weeks when I was eight—they needed the break!

We expect impulsive behavior from toddlers; they don’t have the cognitive capacity or the internal controls to corral their own actions. But as children get a little older, and particularly when they start school, it’s critical that they learn how to regulate their own behavior. In fact, studies have shown that self-control is twice as important as intelligence when it comes to succeeding in school.

If children can’t self-regulate, parents need to help them learn how. While the job can sometimes feel overwhelming—do you ever feel like a broken record of those two greatest hits, “Stop!” and “You have to wait”?—I’d like to offer 8 tips that make the teaching more manageable. There’s no overnight fix, and you’ll undoubtedly see some impulsive behaviors pop back up, especially at times of particular excitement or stress. But you can help a child learn to rein in their impulses and show more self-control—and you’ll be helping them develop the ultimate emotional-intelligence skill in the process.

  1. Look inside your child’s behavior. Kids don’t want to get in trouble; I know I didn’t, I just couldn’t help myself! Sometimes there’s an underlying physical or medical issue causing impulsive, distracted, or hyperactive behavior—such as hearing loss, language disorder or delay, or Attention Deficit Disorder (as in my case). If you struggled with impulsivity or ADD/ADHD yourself as a child, chances are your kids will, too. A trip to the pediatrician may help you rule out other issues or find treatments that can help.
  2. Be a positive role model. Demonstrate delay of gratification; show your kids how to push the pause button: “I’d love to eat that ice cream right this minute, but I’m going to wait until after I’ve had my dinner.” Avoid your child’s triggers; set them up for success by making sure they’ve eaten and/or had a nap before taking them on outings such as shopping trips. And calmly discuss their behaviors in private—without shame or blame—rather than escalating an already frenetic situation in public.
  3. Catch your child being good. I’m a big believer in using positive reinforcement with kids, and not just impulsive kids. It’s natural to react to negative events, but try to pay equal attention when your child is managing his or her impulses and doing the right thing. Offer praise, even if it’s just for a minute.
  4. Practice “thought-stopping.” Teach your kids to “train their brain” by using self-talk, or “having a private conversation in your mind.” Develop phrases such as “I can do this!” or “I am calm and strong!” that can help your child control their emotions in potentially stressful situations. Meditation is also an excellent way to help children calm themselves down. Meditation apps can guide you and your child through it; just find a quiet place in your home, and start with a short amount of time—say, 2 minutes.
  5. Create structure in your day. Kids thrive on routine, so the more you can adhere to a predictable schedule, the more focused they’ll be. Check their backpacks and homework folder in the morning to make sure they’re turning in assignments, and again in the afternoon so you know what homework they have. Give them simple household chores requiring a level of responsibility they can handle; show them how to slow down and manage a process in steps. For example, they can clean up their room by starting at one location and working clockwise. Use checklists (kids love to check things off!) and sticker charts as incentives. The goal is for your child to experience success in as many arenas as possible, thus building their confidence.
  6. Carve out time as a family. Many self-regulation skills are learned right at the dinner table: taking turns in conversation, not interrupting, preparing and cleaning up after a meal. This is where children feel safe, loved, and supported. Find time to connect emotionally with your child every day. This makes all the difference when they hit a bump in the road—they know just who to turn to.
  7. Harness the power of play. Conduct role-play with your child to have her practice ways she can manage her impulsive behavior in various situations: closing her eyes and picturing a big STOP sign to remind her to “Stop and think”; squeezing a ball; belly breathing; rubbing her hands together; touching a bracelet as a calming measure. One of my favorite techniques is to pretend you’re a turtle: Just as a turtle retreats into his shell when he feels threatened, your child can “go inside” to feel calm and safe whenever he feels things starting to spin out of control.
  8. Take care of you. Let’s face it, parenting is exhausting! Hopefully it’s rewarding and exhilarating at times, too, but as a parent of three kids, I’m here to say you spend a lot of time just dreaming of sleep. Carve out time to replenish yourself, whether that means hiding away with a book or spending an evening out with friends. Create your own support group of people who can help you be a strong advocate for your child: other parents, your pediatrician, teachers or specialists at school—each of them has a valuable perspective that can help you respond to the “whole” child, not just the troublemaking part!

And here’s the good news, parents of impulsive children: As adults, these young men and women are often creative thinkers who can see the big picture. They are able to multitask, can take on many projects at once, and think fast on their feet. They usually have a good sense of humor, are ambitious, and always willing to help others. That’s the thing about parenting—we are often insecure about the job we’re doing, and then, lo and behold, it turns out we’ve helped create some darn great people. Well done, Mom and Dad!