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Impulsive Behavior in a Child

By Erin Carson ; Updated June 13, 2017

Impulsive behaviors in a child can range from mildly annoying actions like toy snatching, to dangerous ones such as darting into traffic. As frustrating as impulsive behaviors can be when your child is a toddler or preschooler, these actions often grow more serious when your child starts school and fights with other students or talks at inappropriate times. By teaching your child some basic methods of self-control and watching him for signs that can indicate deeper concerns like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, you can keep him safe and teach him to better manage his behavior.


Most young toddlers and preschoolers exhibit varying degrees of impulsive behaviors since they often lack the cognitive abilities to plan their actions. As they grow older, their verbal skills increase and they gain a better understanding of how their impulses affect other people. Your toddler might stop taking toys from her playmates since she now remembers that you usually scold her for this action and might take the toy away. In his book “Behavior Management: Applications for Teachers," T.J. Zirpoli cites evidence that many children learn to regulate their impulses around 3 or 4 years old.


As your child grows older, his lack of impulse control can begin to affect his social life and his success in school. Other children might not want to play with your child if he hits them or loses his temper. He might frequently get into trouble at school for shouting out answers or fighting with his peers. Zirpoli cautions that children with poor impulse control are also at a higher risk of engaging in dangerous or harmful behaviors such as smoking, illegal drug use, suicide and eating disorders.


Your child might just need some extra help learning self-control, which you can help him to develop by setting reasonable limits and teaching him to take a “cool off” time before acting on aggressive urges. Or, he might need a professional evaluation for ADHD. Clinical psychologist Kristi Alexander, an associate professor in the department of psychology and family studies at U.S. International University in San Diego, recommends that parents seek professional help if a child demonstrates a pattern of age-inappropriate behaviors such as poor impulse control and inattention in more than one setting—such as at home and at school.


Not all children with poor impulse control need medications to help them control their impulses—nor does poor impulse control automatically indicate that your child has ADHD. Alexander states that many preschoolers make rash decisions and exhibit a high energy level. They can also be disorganized and distractible. The difference usually lies in the degrees of the behaviors evidenced, as well as the age of the child. Medications, such as stimulants or anti-depressants, can help to improve the incidence of these behaviors in a child with ADHD, but teachers and parents can use other methods to help non-ADHD children improve their self-control.


Alexander suggests that parents use positive discipline to help children curb their impulses—praise your child when he successfully waits for his turn. Teaching impulsive children relaxation techniques might also help them to settle down and regain their self-control. Zirboli advises teachers to give smaller and shorter tasks to impulsive children to help them slow down and make more accurate choices.

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