Impulse Control in Early Childhood: How You Can Help
We know that a child's ability to manage impulsivity and general "self-control" is a major predictor in school readiness, academic achievement, prosocial behaviors and social skill development while the lack of self-control skills have negative outcomes in childhood as well as into adulthood. So, basically, self-control skills matter. What I want to focus on specifically is the interaction between emotional regulation and impulse control skills and how to support a child's development of those skills.
Emotion regulation and impulse control interact all the time in what we think of as "behavior problems" in early childhood (it's not usually a problem at all but rather, skills that have yet to be mastered). It typically looks something like this:
One child, Charlie, is playing with a toy and another child, Alex, comes over and yanks the toy away. This makes Charlie angry and he grabs and hits Alex. If Charlie had perfect control of his emotions, he may recognize that he is angry before letting the impulse to grab and hit take over. But, the problem is that these skills are actually very complex and we really need to help children learn and practice these skills without shaming them, blaming them, or bullying them in any way.
An important point to make is that children typically aren't capable of practicing control over their emotions and impulses until around the age of six, and consistent control comes even later in life. Typically developing children can still struggle when they are extremely emotionally dysregulated, over-tired, hungry, physically uncomfortable, or in an unusual environment and may need our support to execute these skills. We may notice that some children will continue to struggle with emotion regulation and impulse control, such as children who have experienced trauma. These children may need more developmental time and assistance to master the skills. I shouldn't actually say "master" at all because really, our brains continue to develop until our mid-twenties and things like complex reasoning, managing emotions and impulses, and critical thinking take time to develop. I think most of us can relate to the idea of making some pretty poor decisions, perhaps acting on impulses, into our mid-twenties (and beyond?).
One more really important point to make is that KNOWING the "right thing to do" and being able to DO IT are very different for a young child. By the age of 2 or 3, most children know that they shouldn't hit when they are angry. They may even have an idea of what to do instead, like take a deep breath. But in the moment itself, 2 and 3 year-olds (and 4 and 5 year-olds) may not be able to control their impulse to hit when they become angry.
Anyway, the point is that young children need our help to regulate emotions and control their impulses. When they become upset, they may do something that is less than ideal (like pinch or hit, or yell and scream) and it is our job to respond calmly and compassionately so that we can help them learn what to do instead.
Helping our children is a two-step process. First, we must name their feeling and validate it. Second, we must use this opportunity to teach.
***The foundation is always the secure caregiving relationship. When children have a secure attachment with their caregiver(s), they have trust and know that their needs will be met therefore, they are free to explore their world, learn, and interact without focusing their energy on making sure they are safe, loved, and understood. ***
STEP 1: CONNECT AND TEACH
Charlie is playing with a ball and Alex comes over and yanks the ball away from Charlie. Charlie feels *angry* and acts on his impulse to hit Alex.
Here is our chance to help Charlie learn something extremely valuable to his social and emotional development and can look something like this (in a calm tone of voice and non-threatening body language):
"Charlie, you felt angry when Alex took your ball. You didn't like it."
By naming the feeling, we are teaching Charlie about his emotions. When we validate that he didn't like it, we are teaching Charlie that we understand him. This builds connection and allows us to teach more. We are also treating Charlie with empathy, which helps him develop empathy skills to treat others with.
STEP 2: TEACH AND MOVE FORWARD
"Charlie, you felt angry when Alex took your ball, you didn't like that, and you hit Alex. That hurts Alex. I won't let you hit Alex again (parent needs to stay close by for a little while now). Would you like to stay with me or find another toy to play with?"
Here we are again, reinforcing emotion identification skills for both Charlie and Alex (and building more empathy skills). We are also setting a firm boundary ("I won't let you hit Alex again") and offering a solution that helps Charlie learn coping skills ("stay with me or find another toy").
So much teaching and learning is happening when parents remain calm and approach "misbehavior" as an opportunity to connect and teach a valuable skill.
In this situation, I would recommend that parents revisit the feeling of anger later in the day in casual, relaxed conversation (try to avoid lecturing--it usually bores children and goes over their head anyway! Not the most effective way to teach a little person). Maybe read a story about anger at bedtime, chat with Charlie about what feeling angry feels like in his body, share positive things about Alex, or casually discuss things that Charlie can do when he's feeling sad or mad.
I love the book, My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook.
Happy parenting!! Don’t forget, parenting is a journey and there is no such thing as perfection.