All You Need to Know About Impulse Control

How to help your children take control of their impulses

The ability to control impulses is an important life skill.  It has the potential to impact the direction of a person’s life in very significant ways.

A child with poor impulse control may struggle at school both academically and socially.  Adults with mild impulse control problems may find it hard to resist over-spending on their credit card.  Adults with more severe impulse control problems may have violent outbursts or engage in other antisocial, dangerous or illegal behaviours such as theft, which might lead them to have trouble in their personal relationships and with the law.

Fortunately, impulse control is a skill that can be learned early in life, and in fact at any age.

It may seem that impulsivity goes ‘hand in hand’ with pre-school children! Indeed, one of the greatest challenges for parents is helping their children learn to manage their emotions and impulses.

Luckily, there is much you can do as a parent to help your children learn impulse control.

A Famous Impulse Control Experiment

Marshmallow test


In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel, from Stanford University, started a 12-year experiment to show the advantages of impulse control for children. In this experiment, a group of four year olds were each offered a marshmallow as a treat. If they were willing to wait for the adult (who was really the researcher) to run an errand, they would be allowed two marshmallows  when he returned.

Some four-year-olds were able to wait what must surely have seemed an endless 15 to 20 minutes for the adult to return. To occupy themselves while waiting they covered their eyes so that they wouldn’t have to stare at the marshmallow, or rested their heads in their arms, talked to themselves, and even tried to go to sleep.

These resourceful pre-schoolers got the two-marshmallows reward.  But others, who were more impulsive, grabbed the one marshmallow, almost always within seconds of the adult’s leaving the room for his ‘errand’.

All of the four-year-olds in this experiment were tracked down 12 years later as they were graduating from high school.

The emotional and social difference between the two kinds of graduates – that is, the pre-schoolers who waited the 15 to 20 minutes, and those who ate the marshmallow within seconds – was dramatic.

Those who had demonstrated the ability to wait 15 to 20 minutes at four were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life.

What is Impulse Control?

All of us – adults and children – have impulses.  An impulse is an urge to do something or say something: and we can either give in to that urge or we can learn to control it.

Take for example, a child who wants another child’s toy.  The child may give in to an impulse to take the toy, but s/he can learn to control that impulse.

Similarly, the child whose toy has just been taken may give in to an impulse to hit whoever took it, but s/he can learn to control that impulse.

Having impulses is a natural part of being human: learning to control our impulses is an important part of living together.

Tonia Caselman (author of the book Stop and Think: Impulse Control for Children) describes impulse control this way:

“Impulse control is knowing how to stop and think when we have an impulse.  It is the power to freeze the impulse for long enough to think about whether it is a good idea or not to act upon it.  Impulse control is like being the boss of your impulses (instead of their slave).”

Check out 5 activities you can do with your child to help develop their impulse control on Page 2…


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