“How can I teach my children (who struggle with impulse control) to respect boundaries⏤both mine and each others’? Things like purposely doing something repeatedly after being asked to stop.”
This question is common among parents, primarily because children simply do not have mature brains yet. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is mainly in charge of impulse control, is not well developed in children. Thus, many children struggle with controlling their impulses for things like touching a sibling, using off-limit items, or even yelling and hitting.
Although we cannot magically make our children’s brains develop faster, we can foster impulse control in them with practice. Simple games like “Freeze Dance” or “Red Light, Green Light” help kids practice their impulse control in a fun, active setting. For older children, games like chess can be a great way for them to practice impulse control.
We can also offer children tangible strategies for monitoring and controlling their impulses. For example, talking to oneself can often help children (or adults) resist impulses. We can teach children to tell themselves things like, “don’t touch that” or “just be patient” when they are struggling to control their impulses. You can model this strategy in your own life, and speaking aloud to yourself when you are struggling with impulse control can help children learn this strategy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, encouraging children to get plenty of physical activity can also aid their impulse control. Children’s physical activity has been linked to several positive social-emotional outcomes, including increased impulse control. Therefore, encouraging children to become more active, either through joining sports, playing with friends, or exercising alone, can be a fun and easy way to help foster impulse control.
As children grow and mature, their ability to control their impulses usually grows with them. In the meantime, we can help the process by intentionally focusing on this skill in our parenting.