A parent wrote me recently to say that her 13-year-old son’s impulsive behavior was frustrating his teachers and driving away potential friends. Here is the advice I shared with her:
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain behind the forehead that governs the inhibitory response in human beings. It creates a pause between having an impulse and acting on it.
In the ADD-ish children and teens I’ve worked with, I almost always see up to a 30-percent developmental lag between a child’s actual age and their PFC developmental function. In other words, while a child may officially be 13 years old (and might be even more mature in some respects), they may be more like an 8- or 9-year-old when it comes to controlling their impulsive behavior.
Given how frequently this reader’s son frustrates friends and teachers, he’s probably highly sensitive to feeling scolded or reined in by those who try to force him to “act his age.” Any effort she makes to teach him how to behave more appropriately will have to come across as helpful rather than critical or shaming.
Here are four tips any parent can use to curb impulsive behavior in their kids:
1. Make sure your child sees you as their ally and champion, rather than a source of nonstop criticism. The more they feel safe to confide in you, the more receptive they’ll be to asking for better strategies when they get into trouble or alienate a new friend.
2. Give your child plenty of opportunity to participate in activities they love that come easily to them and that fuel their self-confidence (other than video games or TV). Many impulsive children feel they’re constantly failing or disappointing others, which keeps them in a state of stress that fuels their misbehavior.
3. Make sure your teen is getting plenty of sleep, good nutrition, fish oil and lots of time out in nature. All these elements have been proven to help ADD-ish children function better and are especially important when you fold adolescent hormones into the mix!
4. Role-play alternative approaches your child can take when they’re feeling restless in class and tempted to become disruptive, or when they become impatient with a friend and feel like saying something mean. Repeated practice — in small doses — often helps impulsive children stretch out that pause between wanting to do something and deciding it’s not a good idea.
As frustrating as it is to have to deal with your child’s mishaps, the more you accept them as is — rather than comparing them to what I call your ideal, “snapshot child” — the better able you’ll be to gradually help them try new ways of interacting with friends more patiently, or holding their tongue in class when they feel the urge to blurt something out.