Impulse Control Defined
Impulse control refers to the ability to think before acting and to forgo an immediate desire to wait for a later reward. For children, impulse control means developing social skills such as managing to wait politely for food to be prepared; learning to take turns and to share; knowing how to ask and to thank; remembering not to hit, yell, or bite when angry or frustrated. Impulse control is also associated with delayed gratification, which means that you can resist a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later. A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification, and therefore, make thoughtful, long-term choices, to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.
How can we help children develop impulse control?
Helping our children learn to control impulses is essential to social-emotional and academic competence. To do so well, we need to provide them with three things:
- Compassion – being calm & caring ourselves
- Accurate Mirroring – stating what is happening without interpretation, judgment, guilt, shaming
- Something TO DO to soothe, support, ground themselves – giving them an activity which helps them slow down and shift themselves
In other words, in addition to staying regulated ourselves, so we can hold a safe emotional space, we need to use our words to help them develop self-awareness and to give them tools to help them develop self-control and thus, self-confidence. Breathing exercises offer kids effective tools with which to redirect impulses and down-regulate their nervous systems out of fight or flight into reason, communication, and connection.
Example: Your son is just home from school. Impulse control is an issue. He wants his video game which he is allowed for a limited time once a day, usually after dinner. You can see that he’s tired and stressed by his long day. You know the video game now will only dysregulate him further and make the evening more challenging. You have a conference call in 5 minutes so you cannot play something quiet with him yourself. You need to tell him no on the video but you don’t want him to lose control with his upset, which often happens. So you:
Have compassion for him and yourself: I can see that you want to do something fun after a long day at school. And I wish I could do something fun with you right now but I have a call in 5 minutes and will be busy for a half-hour. After that, I would love to have some special time with you. In the meantime, while you’re waiting for me, you can – play catch with the dog, listen to music or an audio-story, or do a puzzle or leggos.
He insists emphatically that he needs his video game time now!
Accurate Mirroring: I hear that you really want to do the video game now instead of after dinner. But video time is after dinner and you can pick another option now or I’ll pick it for you.
He starts to escalate.
Give him a self-regulating tool or activity: I can see your feelings of disappointment getting stronger. Since you are working on not doing mean behaviors when you are upset or angry, I’ve got a new breathing exercise for you. You can use it to blow off steam rather than blow up at me. It’s called Hissing Breath. Try it and see if it helps you calm your feelings about playing after dinner instead of now.
Breathe in your nose a long, deep inhale. Now, breathe out your mouth making a small hiiiissssssssssssssing sound – like a balloon slowly losing air. Go super slow and try to make the hiss last a long time. I’ll count….. good… you hissed for a long time. Your face and body look more relaxed. Try it one more time, breathing in and then slowing hissing out all the air and any upset or anger. If it feels good, you can do it again or as many times as you need. You’ll know when you’re done.
All done? What do you notice about how you feel now?
How did the Hissing Breath help you? It helped me feel slower and softer.
Thank you for trying it. I hope you’ll use it whenever you want to help yourself calm down.
What are you choosing to do while I’m on my call?
Recently, my teacher sent me this article by Gabor Maté: How to Build a Culture of Good Health. Read it! It beautifully explains the holistic, relational, developmental nature of health that I think we’ve all experienced at some level but never had words for:
Ultimately, healing flows from within. The word itself originates from “wholeness.” To be whole is much more than to experience the absence of disease. It is the full and optimal functioning of the human organism, according to its nature-gifted possibilities. By such standards, we live in a culture that leaves us far short of health.
I’ve been studying biodynamic craniosacral therapy and meditating 30-60 minutes a day for over a year now. In the process, I’ve come to embody a new level of self-trust, presence, and health. It has strengthened my ability to be neutral and allowed the deeper forces that created and sustain me to build potency. In Dr. Mate’s words, I’ve been doing this:
Give yourself, as best you can, what your parents would have loved to grant you but probably could not: full-hearted attention, full-minded awareness, and compassion. Make gifting yourself with these qualities your daily practice.
Now, instead of gripping to protective identifications, I am being moved toward greater fluidity, resilience, awareness, and metabolism. It’s not always pleasant. I’m resolving long held imprints. I cry almost every time. But my tears are cleansing; they do not reinforce any victimhood. Instead, they dissolve old fears that no longer make sense. My personality is less rigid. My window of tolerance is widening. I can see others more clearly. I am able to sustain my own coherence more powerfully. And I can resource myself more effectively.
As educators and parents, we are often at a loss as to how to help our children. More and more, we see how trauma and dysregulation impact them negatively. We try to soothe, cajole, convince, manipulate, force, explain, etc. We want them to feel alright and know that everything will be okay. But resolving trauma and truly embodying self-regulation is an inside job. To teach children how to meet their fears and feelings in a healthy way, we must be regulated and model metabolizing our own experiences. To connect them to their inner health forces, we must meet them, as we meet ourselves, with authentic presence and love.
Adults need to know, even if their physicians often do not, that their health issues are rarely isolated manifestations. Any symptom, any illness is also an opportunity to consider where our lives may be out of balance, where our childhood coping patterns have become maladaptive, exacting costs on our physical well-being. When we take on too much stress, whether at work or in our personal lives, when we are not able to say no, inevitably our bodies will say it for us. We need to be very honest with ourselves, very compassionate, but very thorough in considering how our childhood programming still runs our lives, to our detriment.
To take advantage of the metabolic forces of our own health system, we need to grant ourselves the time and the space to process our own mental-emotional-energetic experiences and make conscious choices that serve our higher intentions. To prevent chronic stress from making us sick, we must stop valuing accomplishment over well-being. And yes, I know that’s challenging inside of … A materialistic culture (that) teaches its members that their value depends on what they produce, achieve, or consume rather than on their human beingness. Many of us believe that we must continually prove and justify our worthiness, that we must keep having and doing to justify our existence.
Choose to re-prioritize. Put your health first and your do-list second. Spend time being, processing, loving yourself. Give yourself the gift of meditation this holiday and open the door to expanding your consciousness, embodying self-regulation, and accessing the intelligence of your own system. Your children will thank you!
Stress and traumas, large and small, are a part of daily life in our new digital age. Online, we and our children witness regular devastation from crime and weather, wars and refugees, terrorism, teen suicide, cyber humiliation, addiction, abuse of all kinds, and mass shootings, sometimes in schools. In light of this constant media exposure to the dark side of humanity, we owe it to our children to make concerted efforts to connect to each other, nurture and acknowledge our light, goodness, love, and heroism, and most importantly, to teach and practice emotional resilience. Having emotional resilience is essential to long-term health. It means that we can process the impact of hurtful, harmful, and even traumatic events and, in doing so, grow the power of our hearts. It means that we know how to use what we don’t want as compost for cultivating what we do want. It means developing the ability to self-care such that we can benefit from our own experience and shine more brightly, compassionately, and authentically. Self-regulation and emotional resilience lay the foundation for being empowered and wanting to be of service
How equipped are our children are to deal with stress or the traumas they see if not experience personally? Anonymous media commentators spout off about everything from gun laws to bad parenting, to mental illness and bullying. But if you stop and really listen to what our kids are saying, you’d know that arguing about the above topics is not part of the solution. Instead, look at teen social media accounts. You will hear the voices of a children who are confused, overwhelmed, and often in despair. Their ability to cope with the normal downturns that life presents is obviously compromised. Their school environments are toxic with competition, boredom, and dis-empowerment. They post 12 selfies a day and rate their own self- worth based on the number of “likes” their precocious pose lands them. They rate each other with a sense of arrogance and shallowness that dismisses and invalidates virtues such as kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
A recent article in The Atlantic about sexting tells the story of a Virginia county that was shocked after an investigation revealed that it is THE NORM for our teens to send nude or inappropriate photos to their boyfriends/girlfriends. Authority’s had to come to terms with the fact that if they enforced the law, hundreds of teens would have been facing felony charges of child pornography.
The digital age has desensitized our children. Exposure to sex and violence through media and video games has made fantasy and reality difficult for the developing teen brain to differentiate. The convenience of instant communication behind the veil of a screen allows them to verbally accost each other with no inhibition. Monitoring their digital interactions can be a full time job for any parent, already pushed to the edge by their own stress. We are drowning.
Our educational system uses catch phrases like, “No child left behind”, and focuses on Common Core Standards to grasp on to any last hopes that America remain a super power and produce “educated go-getters” and “tomorrow’s leaders”. Meanwhile, Suzie is posting her selfie sporting a precocious pose waiting for Tommy to give her the thumbs up so she can feel a modicum of self- worth for the next 5 minutes, but Tommy is too busy playing a game of Call of Duty to notice.
We cannot go back. We have entered the digital age. The media and video game developers are not going to develop a conscience overnight. Parents are not going to always be able to be at home engaging kids in other activities. Our children spend 7 hours a day, 5 days a week in school. It is time to use a few of those hours to teach our children how to both engage safely and respectfully with each other and to cope with the lives WE have created for them. It is time to give them the tools they need to navigate the landscape of the digital age without losing connection to their innate humanity and greater communities. It is time to make emotional resilience and self-regulation the main topic when deciding how we will teach, support, guide, and resource our children for the future.
According to CA Head Start: Higher order thinking skills are crucial to a child’s success in school, and they are a challenge to support in the preschool classroom.
Why? Because brain executive function mode requires physical well-being, emotional safety and embodied engagement. In other words, to use the higher levels of the brain, we must first meet basic survival needs, and feel emotional safety. When stress affects us negatively, we lose access to executive function and the capability to think clearly. We revert back to the Reptilian (survival) Brain, where instinct rules the day. And that is when Ronnie (age 5), who is tired because he went to bed late, ate a donut for breakfast, and now wants to play with his truck, has a complete melt down when it’s time for circle.
The key to “better” behavior at home and optimal learning at preschool is physical well-being, emotional safety and embodied engagement. Bottom-line: physical fitness and self-regulation are key factors for school success. According to the Head Start Health Standards, every child should have 90-120 minutes of supervised active play daily. Motor skill instruction and fun, physical challenges build mastery, which supports fine motor skill and cognitive development. The growth of endurance, speed, and power in our muscles is literally reflected in the weight and density of our brain. Harvard psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. John Ratey, states eloquently, “Exercise is miracle grow for the brain.” A growth factor called Brain Derived Nuerotrophic Growth factor (BDNF) is released in abundance when we exercise. Aas children’s fitness and coordination grow, so does their executive function / higher order thinking.
The ability to self-regulate is also needed for executive function. Without being able to focus, control impulses and manage everyday stresses and emotions, children are disruptive, unhappy, inattentive, emotionally unstable and fall behind academically. They are stuck in the survival, reptilian brain.
The good news is that you can easily support and sustain higher order thinking / executive function and lay a foundation for lifetime well-being simultaneously. Simply schedule more supervised active play and actively teach self-regulation skills. With more fun exercise, children feel and manage themselves better. With use of self-regulation skills, supported by you, they can start to monitor, manage and even change their own emotional state as needed.
Movement and mindfulness resources for home or school: