Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Ruled by Impulses July 19, 2011

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 6:03 pm

Impulsive behaviors, actions, and emotions are an integral part of the wiring in a young child’s brain. The urge to act on impulse is overwhelming and powerful, even though a child is already learning to differentiate “right” from “wrong.”

Parents regularly come to me with the following challenging impulsive behaviors:

-My child climbs onto the coffee table (dining room table, couch, swinging chandelier), even though I’ve told them a hundred times that it’s not “safe.”

-My child constantly hits her sibling (parent, friend, sweet child at the park, preschool playmate), even though she gets “punished” for aggressive behavior.

-If something isn’t going right in my child’s world, he throws himself to the ground and has a meltdown, even if we’re out in public (especially when we’re out in public).

These, and hundreds more examples like these, are the most common causes of parental headaches in these early years (coupled with lack of sleep, screaming, excessive whining, and eating too many chicken nuggets, of course).

Children simply cannot control their impulses in these early years. The brain is wired to react instantly to any perceived threat or excitement. (I use “perceived”, because children may not respond at all to “real” dangers such as running into the street or leaping off the roof of your house.) Perceived threats would be something like another child grabbing their toy, not getting the ice cream (toy, piece of lint) they desperately want, or realizing they have to get into bed (the bath, to the dinner table) RIGHT NOW.

Knowing your child has very little control over their impulses is the reason we “child-proof” our homes in that first year. We know they can’t stop themselves from touching a hot stove, exploring the knife drawer, and finding those cleaning supplies under the sink. So what do we do? We eliminate the possibility of acting on those impulses by controlling the environment. We put safety fasteners on our drawers and cabinets, cover our stove knobs, and put cleaning supplies up high.

You can use this skill of controlling the environment for many impulsive situations. Let’s look at the original examples above:

-CLIMBING: Remove the coffee table (just for a few weeks until the excitement passes), remove the dining room chairs (harder to climb on the table with the chairs moved elsewhere!), remove access to the swinging chandelier (duh).

-HITTING: Move your child away from the object of their scorn. “Uh, oh. Sandbox isn’t working out for us today! Time to go over to the slide (swings, monkey bars, home).” If you are holding a young child who is hitting you, why are you still holding them? Put them down, turn your back or walk out of the room for a moment. Use authoritative voice (not yelling voice, but firm voice: “Hitting hurts. When you want me, say, ‘mommy, up!’ or reach up to me.”)

-TANTRUMS: Meltdowns in public? Easy. Leave. (Yes, leave the shopping cart. Even better, ask dad to pick up the groceries on the way home.)

There’s no reason to punish a young child for an impulsive behavior they cannot control. Change the environment; it’s much easier, believe me.

Heidi Emberling, MA


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