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.

Hissing Breath for Impulse ControlBreathe 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?