On Impulse Control

by Terri Mauro

"Impulse control" is something of an oxymoron — if it could be controlled, it wouldn't be an impulse. Webster's defines impulse as "a sudden spontaneous inclination or incitement to some usually unpremeditated action; a propensity or natural tendency usually other than rational." If there is no premeditation or rational thought involved in an action, it's unlikely that rules and regulations and punishments are going to have much effect on it, alas. Trying to control an impulse is like trying to put lightning in a bottle.

Acting thoughtlessly is different in that it implies that thought could influence the action. If a child is deliberately acting without thinking, then discipline may be effective. If the child is acting out of hostility, or just can't be bothered with the rules, or takes the easiest way out, or is following a bad influence, or is just overwhelmed by expectations ... then there are obvious behavior modifications to be made, incentives to be offered, consequences to be delivered. But if there is truly no thought at all — if an otherwise good-natured child who wants to follow the rules does things for reasons that appear to confound him or her as well — then you're going to have to get creative.

Truly impulsive behavior can be a matter of brain wiring — the part of the brain where the rules are stored and the part of the brain where impulsive ideas arise communicate poorly or not at all. It can be a matter of sensory processing — a child's sensory defensiveness or need for sensory input is so strong as to override any other considerations. Or it could be a combination, which makes life really interesting. A few books that might be helpful in figuring this stuff out are The Challenging Child by Stanley Greenspan (see the chapter on the Active/Aggressive Child, which deals with impulsivity), The Out-Of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz, Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and Smart Moves by Carla Hannaford.

Truly impulsive behavior will not respond to discipline. All the time outs and spankings and consequences in the world will not change it; you'll only convince your child that he's bad no matter what he tries to do, and you don't want that. About the best you can do is control his environment so that he has fewer opportunities for destructive impulses, and then hope that therapy will improve his brain's ability to sustain acceptable behavior. The books above give many more suggestions than I want to get into here, but on a very basic level: Observe what happens before your child behaves impulsively, and try to avoid that. Does he hit somebody who gets too close to him? Have the teacher put him at the front of the line, or move his desk a little further away, or seat him at the head of a table instead of sandwiched between children. If he acts up in a crowded and noisy situation like the mall, then don't take him there. If he slams doors, hold the door for him. If you know certain things lead to certain reactions, be his brain for him and give him a warning right on the spot.

This is micromanaging, and it's not a lot of fun. But it's more fun than banging your head against the wall trying to control the uncontrollable. Your hope is that with therapy and maturity, your child will either no longer need this or will be able to do it himself.

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