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Think Before You Act! 3 Ways to Develop Impulse Control in Your Child

Photo by Jess Lewis / Stocksy United / 80562
Photo by Jess Lewis / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

You walk into the kitchen and find your four-year-old on the countertop reaching for the highest cupboard to grab a piece of leftover Halloween candy. This, even though you’ve told him (several times) it’s not safe to climb on furniture and that candy is off-limits until after dinner.

Is he purposely disrespecting your warnings just to do what he wants? Not necessarily.

At this age, kids are still learning to think before they act. Inhibitory control, also called self-regulation, is one of a vital set of skills collectively known as executive function. It’s what keeps you from blurting out every thought in your head, walking into traffic because you’re in a hurry, or leaving work in a huff because a coworker slighted you—or, in your munchkin’s case, making an unsafe expedition to the top of the highest cupboard to procure a little sugar. At that moment, his impulse to act on his sugar quest is strong; in comparison, your safety warnings are barely a whisper in the wind... The only thing he knew? He wanted candy, like right now.

Developing inhibitory control is extremely important to your child’s future social relationships, emotional development, and classroom learning. Waiting her turn, for example, will be an expectation both in school and in life. Should another child refuse to share a toy, she will need to exercise her inhibitory control in order to stop, think, and respond appropriately.

That’s why it’s so important to give your child chances to practice inhibitory control every day (which, yes, can require a lot of patience). Here are several fun activities you can do at home to help your child practice impulse control:

1. Freeze Dance and Red Light, Green Light. Not only does your little mover and shaker have the chance to get all her wiggles out in these games, she also has to stop her movements upon demand, which helps develop her brain’s ability to control impulses. Not familiar with Freeze Dance? Just turn on some music and dance very fast, then very slow, then back to fast, and turn it off completely every so often—and ask your child to freeze in position when the music turns off.

2. Mindful breathing. When he gets stressed out and can’t control his emotions, mindful breathing is the way to go—just being aware of his breaths can help him feel calmer and more relaxed. Help him focus on his breaths with some imaginative techniques: Smell a flower by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, or breathe like a bunny by taking in three quick sniffs through the nose and letting out one long exhale through the nose.  

3. Board games. Simple board games can help your child practice the art of waiting her turn. Games like Ker Plunk and Don’t Break the Ice are great beginning board games (although they don’t actually use boards). Try taking it up a notch for older kids with a game of Jenga. Not only do they have to wait their turn, they have to work cooperatively with other players—a bonus skill!
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