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The Parent Coach: Helping The Impulsive
Dr. Steven Richfield
Additional information on Dr. Richfield
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
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
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
nonpunitive, nonthreatening, and nonadversarial 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
nonthreatening 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. His column appears monthly. He can be contacted at www.parentcoachcards.com