Understanding young children: Impulse control

Every parent has been in the situation where you’ve told your child for the 100th time not to throw things, snatch toys, push his sister etc... Why don’t children listen?

Well, they do! Their brains just work differently than ours at this point and a lot of it has to do with controlling their impulses.

What is impulse control?

Even though it may seem at times that your child doesn’t listen to a word you say, remember that your child isn’t out to get you. If you sometimes feel that your child just can’t seem to control his actions, you’re probably right, but it’s for a good reason!

That’s because at this young age your child is still beginning to develop impulse control, which is a person’s ability to suppress or restrain himself from doing something, like concentrating on your work while shutting out distractions.

It also includes the concept of delayed gratification, which is the ability to wait in order to get something you want.

Why do toddlers seem to lose control and 'not listen'?

As a parent you may be thinking that your toddler has difficulty restraining himself or waiting for things and you have a point.

That’s because these abilities depend on a part of the brain called the frontal lobes, which develop slower than other parts of the brain. By age two, development is underway butit is not well developed till around age seven. Some reports even state that it doesn’t reach its mature form until our mid-twenties.

As a toddler, your child is struggling to control his emotions and actions. Lack of impulse control is what causes your child to reach for the remote yet again even though you already said "No" several times. It’s when your child persists in wanting the cookie NOW! And when emotions become too hard to handle and result in tantrums.

Understanding what your child is and isn’t capable of can help you have appropriate expectations and result in fewer situations of conflict.

Why is impulse control important?

Won’t most children outgrow this phase? Yes, most children will. However, their ability to regulate their emotions and actions depends largely on their experiences as young children. It’s the difference in early experiences that will result in developmental differences later in life.

A classic study conducted by Stanford University in 1970 called the Marshmallow Test asked four-year olds to stay in a room for a few minutes with a marshmallow and not eat it. They were told if they didn’t eat it by the time the observer came back, they would get the marshmallow in addition to another one.

Of course, some children ended up eating the whole thing as soon as the observer left and never looked back. However, there were those who waited and got both. The interesting part is that years later researchers caught up with the same group of children, who were now in their teens.

Surprisingly, those who had controlled themselves and waited as children were more self-confident, popular with their peers, better able to cope with frustration and more successful in school than those who ate the marshmallow straight away.

What can parents do?

So, what does that mean for you as a parent? Understanding your child’s developmental abilities is key to responding appropriately to support your child.

That doesn’t mean cutting children slack and not correcting them. It does mean that children need opportunities to exercise their brain and develop the skills needed to control their impulses.

 Set a few clear rules

The more things are off-limits, the more likely your child will end up misbehaving. Constantly saying "No" decreases its effectiveness when you really need to use it. Try to select a few clear rules that cover safety and will allow your child to play and explore at the same time.

 Provide an appropriate environment

Now that you know why your child sometimes has difficulty controlling his impulses, make sure your setting is child friendly. Put objects you don’t want him to touch out of reach and bring along a story book or box of crayons when going out to give your child age-appropriate alternatives.

 Give limited choices

Giving your child choices fosters that feeling of independence and enables your child to make decisions: "You can have your bath now or after dinner." "Do you want your blue t-shirt or the red one?"

Try to limit choices to just two items at this stage to avoid confusion. Make sure the choices are acceptable to you as well.

 Remind him of the rules

Don’t anticipate misbehavior, but remind your child positively about what is expected of him in certain situations. For example, explaining that he can help you find the items in the supermarket but not to run down the aisle. This way you positively redirect your child and give him an alternative.

 Practice turn taking

Whether it’s with you or a sibling, encourage your child to wait for his turn. This will help foster impulse control as your child eventually learns to trust the situation and that he will get his turn. Remember to always follow through or give an honest explanation if you can’t.

 Play games that take time

Doing puzzles or using building blocks can help your child learn patience as he works to reach his desired goal.

I hope this article helps you to understand your child’s developmental abilities in controlling his impulses. Remember that when your child feels overwhelmed, sometimes comfort is more effective than correction!

Jailan Heidar


Jailan Heidar

Jailan Heidar provides support for English speaking parents of young children in the Netherlands. She is a Parent and Teacher Educator with a specialized interest in child behavior and positive...

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