The Importance of Teaching Children Impulse Control

Teach your child better self-control skills.
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Today’s world makes it harder than ever to teach kids impulse control. After all, we’re used to instant gratification.

As stores boast, “No lines, no waiting,” and online TV shows prevent us from having to sit through commercials, we have fewer opportunities to practice patience.

However, impulse control is vital to a child's success. Not all things in life happen instantly. Whether your child wants to save money for a big purchase, or they're trying to learn a new skill, self-control is key.

Impulse Control Linked to School Success

Kids with self-control can successfully stand in line, wait their turn when playing a game, and think before they act. They also tend to have more success with their peers because they're able to resist peer pressure and resolve problems.

Impulse control contributes to academic success as well. According to neuroscience researchers Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, co-authors of “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain," self-control is twice as important as intelligence when it comes to academic achievement.

Children who can control their impulses are better able to think about their answers before writing them down and have better critical thinking skills to solve problems. They can also tolerate more frustration when problem-solving.

The Marshmallow Experiment

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment highlights the importance of impulse control in children. The famous study involved a series of experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University.

The researchers tested children’s abilities to delay gratification. Children between the ages of four and six were given a choice between having one marshmallow in the present moment or two marshmallows in 15 minutes.

Most children in the experiment attempted to wait the 15 minutes to have two marshmallows. In the end, many of them gave in to temptation—only about 30 percent of the children were able to successfully delay gratification.

The researchers noted that the kids who were able to wait also showed an improved ability to handle stress and manage their anger. These children were able to distract themselves and use self-talk to coach themselves as they waited.

Other children were successful by reducing temptation. For example, some kids pretended the marshmallow was a cloud while others told themselves it was only a picture of the marshmallow instead of the real thing.

A follow-up study on the children who were able to delay gratification found that they exhibited fewer behavior problems later in childhood. They were also more popular with their peers and sustained longer friendships.

Impulse control also served them well later in life: the kids who were able to delay gratification early on had higher SAT scores as teenagers.

A 2017 study published in Economics Letters found that childhood self-control can predict whether an individual will contribute to a retirement plan as an adult. The researchers concluded that childhood self-control predicted a 4 to 5 percentage point higher probability of having a pension. 

Normal Impulse Control by Age

In terms of impulse control, here's what you can expect from your child at each stage of development:

  • Toddlers: Toddlers lack impulse control in almost every aspect of their lives. They throw themselves to the ground, kick, or hit without regard to anyone or anything around them. Even with their normal lack of impulse control, toddlerhood is a great time to start introducing the concept of patience to your child.
  • Preschoolers: Preschool children should be having fewer tantrums and be actively gaining better problem-solving skills. However, it’s normal for them to continue to have occasional outbursts, including aggression.
  • Grade Schoolers: Grade school children should have a good handle on impulse control with regard to their bodies. For example, they're usually less apt to grab something out of someone’s hand and should be able to respond to a problem without aggressive behavior. It's normal for them to struggle with verbal impulses, as many kids at this age make rude comments or blurt out answers without thinking.
  • Teens: Most teens believe they have full control over their impulses, but developmentally, this isn’t likely. When compared to adults, teens tend to be bigger risk-takers, more emotionally volatile, and more vulnerable to peer pressure. Their developing brains continue to cause them to focus more on short-term gains rather than the long-term consequences of their actions.

Teach Self-Control

Impulse control isn't an innate characteristic; it a learned skill that any child can develop. As a parent, you'll need to proactively teach your child impulse control skills.

With practice and guidance, your child will improve their ability to think before they act, which can help prevent behavioral problems in the future.

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