“Hold Your PeePee!” 12 Tips to Help Your Child Manage Impulsivity
Impulsivity refers to a person’s inability to put their “mental brakes” on before they act. People with impulse control issues act on a whim without considering consequences, often resulting in them speaking or behaving inappropriately. Impulse control can be a struggle for many children and teenagers, but some have a harder time with it than others. With time and guidance, most kids learn ways to manage their impulses by the time they reach adulthood. If they don’t, however, impulsivity can have a long-term impact on their relationships, academic and career success, and emotional well-being.
So how can parents teach their kids to think before they act?
1. Think back to potty training
Children struggling with impulsivity often feel like they have no control over their actions. However, if they were capable of learning to use a toilet when they felt the urge to pee, they can learn to control other impulses as well. Remind your child or teen that when they were babies, they used to pee or poop whenever the urge hit, but with practice they learned to “hold their peepee” until they got to a bathroom. Your child’s mental process of potty training went something like this:
Becoming aware of the urge to use the bathroom
Recognizing bodily symptoms of needing to use the bathroom
Making a plan to get to a bathroom before having an accident
Getting to a toilet and releasing their urge to go
2. Apply it to today’s challenges
Just like they were capable of learning to control that physical impulse, they can also learn to control mental impulses such as yelling, hitting, or making reckless decisions. When they feel like acting out, encourage them to work through the same steps.
Becoming aware that some actions are impulsive and inappropriate
Example: “Hitting when I am angry is an impulsive behavior.”
Recognizing how their body reacts when they feel like acting impulsively
“When I feel like hitting, my fists clench, my chest tightens, and I feel like screaming.”
Making a plan to release their energy in an appropriate way
“I’m going to walk away and focus on my breathing instead of hitting my brother.”
Carrying out their plan by finding an appropriate way to react
3. Label feelings
Children and teens who don’t understand their emotions are more likely to express themselves impulsively. Teach your child to recognize feelings so they can express through calm words rather than hitting or lashing out. Discuss different emotions such as anger, sadness, confusion, joy, and fear. Let them know that having feelings is ok, but expressing them through inappropriate behaviors is not.
4. Empower “self-talk”
Kids and teens who engage in calming self-talk are less likely to act impulsively. Encourage your child to talk to themselves out loud when they are feeling frustrated or anxious. Self-talk will help them learn to process and control emotions as they come up.
Example: “This is a long line but I have to patiently wait for my turn.”
5. Have them repeat directions
Impulsive kids and teens often rush into action before listening to directions. Help them battle this habit by having them repeat directions twice before they get started on a task – if your child is young, have them repeat directions to you. If you have a teen, encourage them to repeat directions to themselves before taking action. Also, consider if your child’s challenges with focus and staying on task may be a sign of a learning disability or ADHD.
6. Focus on physical health
Research has shown that children and teens who struggle with impulse control tend to eat more, sleep less, and are not very physically active. Limit screen time and give your child lots of opportunities to run and play outside. Keep healthy, balanced foods on hand and don’t let them stay up all night. When your child’s physical health is supported, they’ll be less likely to lash out in emotional distress.
7. Delay gratification
All children benefit from learning to appreciate delayed gratification, meaning they must behave well now in order to receive a reward later. Practicing delayed gratification can help them avoid temptations that lead to impulsive reactions. This concept also conditions them to stay persistent with tough tasks in school and work later in life. Teach delayed gratification by creating a reward system where they have to save up points or earn their reward over multiple days.
8. Play “Impulse Control” Games
A fun way to teach self-control is to play games with your child that require impulsivity management to win. Games like Simon Says, Follow the Leader, and Red Light Green Light can help train a young child’s brain develop more self-control. Search online for “impulse control games for teens” to choose from a variety of activity books or board games designed to boost a teenager’s self-control. The best part is, your child will get quality time with you and they’ll have fun doing it!
9. Teach healthy anger management
Your child’s impulsive outbursts may be caused by low frustration tolerance. Learning how to manage anger can help your child deal with their emotions in healthy ways. Teach your child to pause and take slow, deep breaths when they are angry. Encourage them to go kick a ball rather than a person, take a walk around the house, or place themselves in a “calm down spot” before they react.
10. Provide rules & responsibilities
Set clear behavioral expectations and explain consequences for breaking rules before it happens. Understanding rules and consequences can help your child make informed choices about their behavior. You can also increase structure and accountability in your home by empowering your child with household responsibilities. This can be as simple as pairing socks as a kid or washing cars as a teen. As they grow, so should their responsibilities.
11. Praise patience
It can be easy to only acknowledge when your child is acting inappropriately, but make sure to give them lots of praise and attention when they sit quietly or react calmly when things don’t go their way. When your child understands what preferred behaviors looks like, they are more likely to keep doing them. Acknowledge when a child is being patient, acting calm, or waiting for the appropriate time to release their energy.
12. Don’t beat yourself up
It’s important to know that your child having impulsivity issues does not mean you are a bad parent. Many children are just naturally more prone to impulsivity than others for a variety of reasons. In some children, the part of the brain that controls impulses develops slower than others. The good news is, there is hope and a qualified specialist can teach your child ways to control their impulses, just like they learned to “hold their peepee!”
See a Mental Health Specialist
Whether you are concerned that your child or teen may need support with impulsivity, or if you are an adult who feels like you never learned how to manage your own impulses, our specialists at Variations can help.
Cynthia R. Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. Cynthia can help your child or teen learn ways to think before they act and strengthen your family bond.
Dr. Christopher J. Sample, Psy.D. specializes in supporting men and teen boys through life’s transitions. If you have a teenage son struggling with impulsivity, or if you are a man who struggles with self-control, Dr. Sample can provide a comfortable place to overcome your obstacles.
Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child and educational psychology. She provides educational consulting to evaluate each child’s emotional and behavioral development and assess if there are other factors such as impulsivity or attention problems that may impact their academic experience. Dr. Shinn works with parents and children to overcome obstacles and help children strive for their academic potential and emotional well-being.
Dr. Daniella A. Davis, Psy.D., is an expert in dealing with the unique challenges that women face throughout each stage of life. If you are a woman who feels challenged with managing your impulses, Dr. Davis can support you in gaining control over your actions.
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Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.
Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams).
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