Impulse Control: the Key to Child Safety

Impulse control is the ability to choose, not react to, our basic drives and emotions. It is a critical component to safety, and the lack of if in children can cause parents a lot of stress!

Response inhibition is defined as the ability to think before you respond.

They are two sides of the same coin, and both are necessary skills for safety and future success in life. Properly mastered, these skills can lead to financial stability (not spending money on a whim), good social status and standing (the ability to keep secrets and be discreet), and general life success (perseverance in business).

This is an important function that many adults still need to master! Do you know an adult who flies off the handle? Can’t keep their mouth shut? Jumps to conclusions? Breaks things in the heat of the moment? That could be identified as a lack of impulse control!

How Kids Are Affected

Children, especially those with ADHD, generally sustain more accidents and injuries than the average child. Aside from possible Sensory Integration issues, they rush into situations all day long without thinking about the consequences. Sound familiar?

In the younger child, you may see darting into the street, running in the parking lot, using toys and objects inappropriately and dangerously, and falling. At our house, one of our daughters broke an arm because she was hanging off of the top bunk of the bunk bed. Never a thought for safety!

In older children, we see lack of impulse control displayed as an increase in automobile accidents and moving violations. When kids are emotionally stressed, tired, or upset, they are less likely to exercise control or response inhibition.

Other factors that can influence how well the older child will use impulse control include the use of alcohol, drugs, lack of sleep and increased freedom. That desire to be separate and different from their parents can create a pressure point where their thinking skills fall apart. They may be able to make a better choice, but are unable to due to their evolving, but incomplete, rational thinking capabilities.

As a friend of mine once said, “Their body may look grown up, but their brains aren't fully cooked."

How Impulse Control Affects Life At School

A child will struggle to be successful in school until they learn to curb their impulses. Shouting out, wandering around the classroom, and snapping at friends for not conforming to their plan is all part of learning to be a rational being.

Remember, impulse control is a skill. Skills can be taught. It just takes time, repetition, and patience.

Putting Safety Nets In Place

You need to loan your child your frontal lobes until theirs are developed. In this situation, that may be becoming very pro-active with safety precautions to reduce the risk of injuries.

Having a good set of routines in place that are consistently implanted will help. Remember, routines provide structure and teach your children how to move through daily life. You also need to thoughtfully establish age appropriate rules, teach them, and expect compliance. Remember, it’s for their well-being.

Younger children may need things such as wearing helmets for fast moving toys or holding hands in parking lots. You may need a tethering harness when in busy places. Our daughter was usually assigned her own adult when we were out for her own safety. She was a wanderer, and unaware of cars and other things that could hurt her!

For older kids, your precautions involve establishing rules of safety. They may involve cell phone use and texting guidelines, and frank discussions about the REAL consequences of engaging in “risky” (impulse driven) behavior. Unwanted pregnancies, drug addiction and death are all possible realities.

Parent Interventions

There are things you can do in the home to help keep your child safe.

1. Put all dangerous chemicals, tools, equipment, and household cleaning products in a safe, unreachable area.

2. Remember that impulsive children will require more supervision, and need more time to internalize the rules.

3. Allow them to earn more privileges as the maturity level increases. Chronological age may not be a good determiner!

4. Have lots of discussions about consequences. Hearing and practicing different scenarios before being exposed to them will help them make better choices.

“Think before you answer!” is a common reminder at our house to think about the consequences of exploding versus being rational.

Tips for Teaching Impulse control

1. Always assume the younger the child, the less all-around executive function they have.

2. Being bored and waiting are good things! It will teach them to delay gratification… which also teaches control.

3. Practice social situations in advance. Social thinking is not natural for all kids. Look for areas where you child may struggle with impulses.

4. Teach them to think before they answer! Count to ten before making a decision, even if they already think they know what the answer will be. That pause is a critical component for success.

5. Unleash the power of your family pet in teaching impulse control. Kisses, licks and nuzzles are all immediate rewards for proper behavior. Animals have an amazing capacity to socialize humans.

Remember, impulse control is a skill; one of several executive functions. Skills can be taught. You may find that as you teach your child to strengthen him or herself in this area that another area will fall into line. It’s a wonderful thing.