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Do you have an impulsive child, one with impulse control issues? Read this parenting advice for teaching impulse control in children.

Parents of Impulsive Children Need a Game Plan

As a psychologist specializing in AD/HD, a large chunk of my clinical time is spent treating impulsivity in children between the ages of 6 to 12. And, as the father of two boys, ages six and nine, impulsivity makes frequent appearances in our home. Sometimes impulsivity takes the form of a hurling basketball, heading straight for an older brother's head. Other times, impulsivity appears as poorly chosen words "popping out of the mouth" of the targeted brother. Additional impulsivity impact zones include decision making, body movements, and possession handling. In fact, just about any area of life functioning is vulnerable to the breakthrough of impulsivity. Thus, if we are hoping to coach school-aged children in impulsivity control, a well formulated game plan is needed.

The game plan is clear, direct, and educational. In my mind, if children are to become better controllers of their impulsivity, coaches must make them aware of what causes their loss of control. Most children in this age range have never been taught about how impulsivity lives inside of them, ready to strike without notice. This was especially the case for 8 year old Zach, who originally related to my couch as a trampoline before I revealed to him that his impulsivity was damaging my furniture and causing him a lot of trouble at home and school. This got his attention long enough to ask, "What's impulsivity?"

The following narrative illustrates the suggested sequence for coaches to follow when approaching the impulsive school-aged child: entry point - chalktalk - teaming up.

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  • The entry point provides for the introduction of a skill in an attention-holding way to the child with hard-to-hold attention.
  • The chalktalk places the discussion onto a symbolic chalkboard where child and coach can "meet" for meaningful dialogue about the problem.
  • Teaming up begins with the coach's offer to support the child's efforts to learn new tools to improve their skills.

Teaching Impulsivity Control to Children with Poor Impulse Control

Bear in mind that these coaching steps don't always lend themselves to such discrete phases, especially with impulsive children like Zach. To retain his attention, I utilized the couch-as-a-trampoline entry point, and shortly thereafter, began chalkboard construction. It starts with my showing him the "Find Your Brakes" illustration from the set of Parent Coaching Cards:

"See this picture? You may think that it's just a boy on his roller blades trying to slow himself down and looking pretty worried that he's going to fall. The smoke tells you that he's been going pretty fast and the "Find The Brakes" title tells you that he's trying to stop himself. But what you don't know is that this boy is a lot like you. He got himself going too fast for his own good and now he might just be headed for a crash. So, how's he like you? Well, for one thing, your energy comes out so fast that I've been wondering whether my couch will survive all your bouncing up and down."

This entry point captures Zach's attention by placing his current act of impulsivity upon a chalkboard for discussion. The coach's tone is straightforward, not accusatory, demeaning nor punitive. Such an approach invites Zach's sustained interest since he is more accustomed to adults reacting to his impulsivity rather than reflecting upon it. Next, more chalktalk educates Zach about what fuels his bounce:

"I think I know something about you that maybe you don't know about you. It's about all this energy that comes out of you, and where it comes from. It comes from a fuel that all kids have, but some have more trouble controlling. The fuel is called impulsivity, and it helps kids in some ways and hurts kids in other ways. One way it helps is by allowing kids to react to things very quickly, such as when they are playing sports or needing a lot of energy to reach a goal. But there are a lot of ways that impulsivity gets kids into trouble, like when they let the wrong words pop out of their mouth, or hit somebody when they are angry, or use somebody's couch like a trampoline."

Once the coach has labeled the problem, it's important to engage Zach-like children in a discussion of typical impact zones. "Where else do you think impulsivity gets you into trouble?" is an appropriate leading question. If you receive the standard shoulders shrug of "I don't know," be prepared to offer actual home or school examples of impulsive reactions. Explain how kids (and adults) who don't control their impulsivity live very bumpy lives. To some degree, it may be necessary to build motivation by explaining how other kids have already learned impulse control skills or by offering a longer range view of the problem:

"You've probably noticed that some kids don't have too many impulsivity problems. But some kids do. All kids have impulsivity because it fuels them, just like the gas that makes a car go. Without it, we wouldn't have much energy to get anywhere. But unless kids learn how to control their speed, watch where they are going, and have control over their impulsivity, a lot of bad things will happen to them. We've talked about some of the bad things that have happened to you because of your impulsivity. Those things will probably continue, and maybe even get worse, unless you learn ways to control your impulsivity so that it doesn't control you so much. Are you willing to team up with me to beat your impulsivity, to learn ways that other kids have already learned to control themselves?"