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Child Development Strategies for Regulating Impulse Control

by Cara Batema, studioD

Perhaps one of the most frustrating events parents must deal with is a child’s lack of impulse control. The constant “stop doing that” or “don’t do that” becomes exhausting to the point where parents want to just throw in the towel. Some children have more trouble regulating themselves than others, but either way, it’s a skill that must be taught just like learning numbers or tossing a ball.

Cognitive Functioning

A majority of impulse control lies in a child’s level of cognitive abilities. While some children find it easy to think about a situation before giving a reaction, many children jump over the problem solving and straight into an impulsive response, according to developmental psychology expert Dr. Becky Bailey. Dr. Michelle Anthony suggests that at a young age, around age 2 or 3 years, children might hit or display other forms of poor self-control; during this time, it is best to confront the behavior with a firm direction, such as, “Hitting hurts. Don’t hit.” Children who are older will require less direction from parents and will be able to cognitively handle what is causing their emotions and how to deal with it appropriately.

Parental Modeling

One of the most ideal ways to get your child to act the way you want is to display that behavior yourself. According to Dr. Michelle Anthony, rather than just telling, actually show your child to how take a break or breathe deeply in order to relax. When you see your child steal a toy from his sibling, address it immediately. Be simple and direct, such as saying, “It’s not nice to take toys from our sister. Let’s ask her to share first.” Teach your child how to talk to himself and really ask himself what he thinks he can do to regain control. According to KidsHealth.com, if you discover that you are showing your child frustration or anger, speak to him about it by saying, “I’m very frustrated that I can’t find my keys. Can we find them together?” Show your child the concepts you want to teach them, such as looking both ways when crossing the street; the more you practice ideas like this one, the less likely your child is to just run out into the street, for example.


Impulse control is a serious subject, but the lesson can be made more pleasant when presented as a game. Researchers at Stanford University and Maastrict University in the Netherlands found that enhanced memory improves impulse control. In the Stanford University study, researchers found that students who were given seven numbers to memorize were more likely to give into temptation to buy a cake from a vending machine than those students who only had two numbers to memorize; the more numbers, the more the brain was overtaxed. In the Maastrict study, participants were heavy drinkers who were split into two groups; the treatment group received memory training while the placebo group had similar tasks but with a significant decrease in the memory workout. Participants in the treatment group reduced their impulsive drinking behavior while the placebo group did not change their behavior. This research suggests that playing memory games could improve self-control in your child. Play games that require specific directions and waiting, such as freeze or Simon Says. When possible, let your child play with other children in games that require taking turns or sharing. If your child has trouble with interrupting, practice games to see who can stay quiet the longest.

When Tantrums Occur

According to KidsHealth.com, tantrums will happen, but you can use each one as an educational experience for your child. Give time outs when appropriate, but while your child is waiting, encourage him to count; this activity distracts him and helps him calm himself down. Acknowledge your child’s emotions by saying, “I can see you’re angry because I took your toy away. Remember I said we need to put our toys away before dinner. Now let’s take a deep breath and calm down.” Dr. Michelle Anthony says when your child shows ability to regulate his impulses, give a reward or positive reinforcement in a specific comment, such as, “Great job taking that deep breath and getting calmer.”

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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