Impulsive Behavior in Children

by Kathy Love

Impulsive behaviors are actions that occur without any control or thought of the consequences of the behavior. In children, impulsive behavior also includes several types of inappropriate behaviors such as fighting with other children, losing one’s temper regularly, throwing tantrums, speaking out of turn, and deliberate self-harm. If your child does exhibit any of these types of behavior patterns consistently, it may be time to reach out for some professional help. Impulsive behavior in children tends to continue into adulthood and develop into other more serious problems such as substance abuse and addictive behavior patterns.

The most common causes of impulsive behavior in children are learning disabilities or conditions such as ADHD or autism. Before beginning any child behavior modification treatment, it is important to determine the possible cause of your child’s impulsivity. Children with learning disabilities or ADD are often prone to inappropriate behaviors and come with their own set of problems and issues. Forcing such children to think rationally and curb their impulsivity may take longer than normal.

If any other cause for impulsivity has been ruled out, there are a number of strategies to help modify impulsive behavior in children. These include:
  • Positive reinforcement – There is a tendency to punish bad behavior but ignore good behavior. Positive reinforcement helps train your child to respond in a particular way and to recognize what is and is not acceptable.
  • Apply consequences for negative behavior – The trick here is to intervene as soon as the behavior occurs or soon after the impulsive act takes place. Intervening at the correct time will help reduce bad behavior and make your child understand the consequences of his actions. Time out is a popular choice for dealing with misbehavior.
  • Avoid lecturing – Children have small attention spans and will rarely pay heed to long lectures about good and bad behavior. Refer to the here and now and let your actions speak for themselves.
  • Do not criticize – Criticism is another form of attention and can serve to increase bad or impulsive actions. Focus on the problem at hand and the immediate reward or punishment required. Additionally, never ever criticize your child in front of others as well.
  • Develop a plan – Consult with your child’s teachers at school to devise a behavior modification plan that is carried out throughout the day. If the child resorts to impulsive or inappropriate behavior during school hours, the punishment or consequences should be seen through just as it is done at home. In much the same way, appropriate behavior should be acknowledged and rewarded immediately. If your child tends to be disruptive in class or does not stick by the rules, confer with the school authorities to devise a way to discipline the child that is acceptable to all.
As a parent you can also help your child curb his impulsive behavior by:
  • Encouraging your child to think about the consequences of his actions.
  • Teaching him to understand that what he does now will not necessarily make him feel good later on.
  • Sharing with him your own experiences with impulsivity.
  • Praising him for the times when he does curb his impulses and show self-control.
  • Keeping a logbook of your child’s behavior patterns including your response to his actions.
  • Encouraging physical activities and sports so that your child can blow off steam in a healthy manner. Teaching your child yoga and meditation has been proven to help improve concentration and reduce problems with anger management.
  • Not comparing your child with others. Every child is unique and child-rearing rarely has a universal set of rules to follow.  
  • Understanding your child’s limitations. If your child does have a genuine problem such as a learning disability or ADHD, expecting him to perform on the same level as a normally functioning child is both unrealistic and unfair.
  • Keeping a calm and positive attitude to help deal with your impulsive child.
  • Educating yourself about child psychology and behavior management techniques.

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