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Impulsive Behavior

Dear Elizabeth,
My 4-year-old boy is always grabbing whatever he wants from others. He wants to do whatever he wants and doesn’t listen when I tell him this is wrong. Any advice?
Iris Pedersen
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Help children become aware of their own feelings
  • Be specific, clear and consistent
  • Focus on behaviors that are unsafe and infringe on others
  • Provide immediate, positive feedback
Expert Advice
Dr. Daniel Siegel
Dr. Daniel Siegel
Professor of psychiatry, UCLA
Impulsive Behavior
Impulsive behavior can be defined as acting without thinking. So you have an impulse, and it turns into a behavior, an action, without anything going in between.

Little kids, of course, are just spontaneous and doing all the things they want to do, and they have all sorts of feelings in their body and desires. They want to grab something, so they just do that. That’s normal, and that’s healthy. When a kid gets around 2 or 3, the part of their brain just behind the forehead starts to develop. The way we interact with kids helps this part of the brain develop really well, and it’s this part that puts a space between an impulse and an action. Ideally, that’s what the challenge of impulsive behavior can be, is an opportunity to grow this part of the brain of the child so they stop their impulsive behaviors.

Children’s Brain Development
The amazing thing is that we actually know when parents and caregivers interact with kids in a way that’s called attuned. When they tune into the internal feelings and the thoughts of what’s going on inside of a child, this child will develop the functions that come from this part of the brain, like being able to not be impulsive, like thinking about their own feelings and being able to put words to them.

If you say, “I see you looking really frustrated, and your hands are really clenched. How does that make you feel?” The child learns from that interaction, “Wow. I’ve got something inside of me, a feeling, and I can start talking to my parent or caregiver about that.” Then, instead of just acting on a feeling, I can separate the feeling from my desire, for instance, to grab a toy from a sibling or pull something from another kid at school. That’s how parents and caregivers actually develop this important regulatory part of the brain. What it does is it allows kids to know their own inner world. So instead of just selfishly doing whatever they want to do, they know they have feelings, and then, they come to realize another person has feelings, too.

Between the ages of 2 and 5 is when this area of the brain is developing a lot in response to interactions. It’s at home and in care giving settings where our interactions with children help develop this part of the brain. This is exactly the part of the brain that’s going to give social-emotional intelligence that starts at this early age.

Give Positive Feedback
One of the consequences of children behaving impulsively are that teaching opportunities arise. Give feedback and say, “That was not a good behavior. It hurt other people’s feelings. It hurt other people’s bodies. And so, you shouldn’t do that.” Give children feedback right away--that’s the first thing. The thing we need to be careful is, we also need to give positive feedback when kids do delay their gratification, when they do wait. When you can see they have an impulse, and they pause, you can say, “Wow. I saw you waited. That was hard, but you did it.” Kids love to have positive feedback. We need to balance these two and see these impulsive behaviors as actually an opportunity to develop this important part of our children’s brains. It’s not just a negative thing. It’s what young kids do, and we, as the caregivers can see it as an opportunity to help them grow.

Anticipate Factors Which Trigger Impulsive Behavior
Even as adults, if you’ve had a tough day or something didn’t go right, you can flip your lid. So this is the kids’ equivalent of flipping your lid. We need to be sensitive, because then the child learns to be sensitive themselves. In schools I work with, we actually teach the kids about the brain. We show them these lower parts of the brain where impulses come from, and then, this higher part when you think, and if you haven’t eaten, if you’ve had a bad day, you’ve had a disappointment, you can flip your lid. We call that the low road. And then kids go around and say, “I’m close to the low road. I need a time-out.” When they understand their brains, they’re empowered. That is a positive feedback loop, that they realize, “OK. Everyone has a bad day, and I recognize it. I’m going to try better next time.”
Child Care Provider Comments
Cathy Doré
Cathy Doré
Mother of three
One of my twins will be playing with a toy, and suddenly, the other one decides that they want to have that exact same toy. I tell them to use their words. I encourage them to have some patience. We actually use imaginary patience that they keep in their pocket. They pull it out when they need it!
Ginny Aragon
Ginny Aragon
Child care provider for 34 years
If someone is playing with something my nephew wants, he will just grab it and take it away. I try to prevent his impulsive behavior by looking for signs of over-stimulation. I keep things orderly and out of his reach. He is easily distracted, so I need to keep nick-knacks away. When there is too much out, he gets unfocused and over-stimulated.

I also give him positive feedback. For instance, when he behaves well, he gets little gold stars. They are stickers, which makes him happy. We see how many stars he gets in the day, and we will tell Mommy how good he was today.
Tondra Gardner
Tondra Gardner
Licensed child care provider for two years
With the kids in my care, I have seen them hitting or grabbing toys because they want them. I am working on this with my little ones, particularly two-year-olds. I am teaching them how to use words to ask before they grab. When they see it, their brain says “I want it” without asking. I am trying to teach them to be polite and wait their turn.

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Impulsive Behavior
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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