The Parent Coach: Helping The Impulsive Child

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Dr. Steven Richfield, author of the Parent Coach Cards

A parent writes, “I’m becoming increasingly worried about our twelve year old son’s problems with impulsivity. I don’t think he would ever hurt anyone on purpose but he’s very big and strong for his age, and he has ADHD. He can sound, and even act, very threatening at times. What should I do about it?”

Childhood impulsivity appears in decisions, actions, and statements. It can be compared to a chemical accelerant that speeds up reactions to events. It is stored up and lives in a dormant form until something in the outside environment strikes. This can be thought as the precipitant or trigger. Once the precipitant arrives on the scene, there may be breakthrough in the form of aggressive actions, such as throwing a shoe, or hostile comments, such as belittling a family member. In the midst of such a breakthrough there is little room for the voice of reason to be heard.

Impulsivity narrows a child’s perceptions, making it difficult for them to see the “big picture.” It acts as a blindfold with a tiny hole in it. So much is blocked out except for the small space afforded by the hole. One can think of that small space as the strong feelings that block out everything else. When I explain this concept to kids, I ask them to remember a time when they felt so angry that they “couldn’t see” how their behavior was going to lead to consequences. I also emphasize the triggers and causes to such “blindfold behaviors,” such as a critical teacher, refusal of their request by a parent, or the annoyance of a younger sibling. In these cases, wounded pride and difficulty tolerating frustration are the causes. This is an important distinction because kids would rather see the trigger as the cause, and therefore, blame the teacher, parent, or sibling, i.e. “It’s the teacher’s fault. If she didn’t say that about my report, I wouldn’t have told her to shut up.”

Consider these coaching tips when approaching a child with impulsivity problems:

Avoid placing yourself in a power struggle with an impulsive child. Remember that impulsivity is like energy waiting for a catalyst (kind of like a landmine)- don’t make yourself the catalyst! Approach in a non-punitive, non-threatening, and non-adversarial manner. Try not to get into an “either/or” situation where you issue a request and immediately follow it up with the threat of a consequence. Don’t get lulled into the belief that the harsher you sound the more they will comply; often times, it’s just the opposite. Parents get stuck defending angry and arbitrary positions, such as “You either sit down and listen to me or you’re grounded for the week.!”

Give them room for healthy impulse discharge when they need it. One of the ways that kids burn off their impulsivity is through physical activity, listening to music, playing video games, walking out of the house when you are trying to have a conversation with them, and so on. Sometimes this can prevent a meltdown and preserve a channel of communication once they return. Try not to interfere with their access to these routes especially when you pick up signs of imminent impulse breakthrough.

The underlying issues are one of the keys to helping them control their impulsivity. As their world becomes more demanding, children experience more pressure and potential for impulsivity. Many times impulse breakthrough follows a distinct pattern. Take note of these patterns and gently bring it to their attention. Suggest that they can take several deep breaths, give themselves time to cool down, or use relaxation exercises when they feel their impulses building.

Listen careful and offer a little advice:

Most kids don’t have patience for long and involved explanations about themselves. Parents must strive to make sense out of their impulsive behavior without sounding like a know-it-all. No matter how ill-advised or irrational the behavior, there is some rational thread embedded in the story. Our job is to listen carefully, find the thread, and make our child aware of it in a non-threatening manner. The more that we can designate the steps that lead to their acting out, the more able they will be to see it coming, and take preventive action before the point of no return.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. His column appears monthly. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of homes and schools throughout the world. He can be contacted at or 610-238-4450.