Impulse Control in Young Children (and Young Teens)

A recent study on parenting discovered what researchers called an “expectation gap” wherein 56% of parents believe that children under the age of three have the ability to resist doing something forbidden and 36% of parents believe that children under the age of two have this ability. Fact: if everything is perfectly on track developmentally (and it rarely is) the earliest we can expect this type of prefrontal cortex maturity is between the ages of five to seven. Many other factors can delay this maturity and can result in a child not developing integrative functioning until age eight, nine or even ten. It should be noted that once integrative functioning has developed it can seemingly disappear for a year or so in the early adolescent years; this is natural (albeit frustrating for parents and teachers!), to be expected and makes sound developmental sense.

 

The ability to hold multiple thoughts or feeling in one’s consciousness at the same time is called integrative functioning and it is a fruit of prefrontal cortex development. Integrative functioning is the prerequisite for impulse control; when a child can feel both “I want that candy in the dish” while simultaneously remembering “I like to do what Mama tells me to do” they have arrived at the place of being able to resist forbidden behavior.

 

The developmental child psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld reminds us that, in responding to children, “what we see affects what we do.” If we perceive two and three-year-olds (or twelve and thirteen-year-olds) who are doing things that we have told them not to do as disobedient, willful or, even, “bad” we will respond very differently than if we understand the truth, which is that their brains have not yet developed the capacity for impulse control.

 

If children aren’t able to consistently (they may get it right by luck occasionally) resist doing what is forbidden until a far older age than most parents expect this “expectation gap” can lead us into troubling and counterproductive territory. If we, as parents and teachers, perceive our young children as freely choosing to do the wrong thing, it can lead both to feelings of frustration and to the impulse to “teach the child a lesson.” The unfortunate irony is that the most commonly used discipline methods—time outs and consequences– actually hinder the healthy development of the prefrontal cortex.

 

What is needed to support healthy brain development is a safe, deep and reliable attachment with a caring adult. When the adult that a child depends on responds to unacceptable (yet developmentally appropriate!) behavior by either sending the child away (“time out”) or by using what the child cares about against them (which, when you get right down to it, is what “consequences” are) the bonds of that attachment are weakened. What is actually required of parents and teachers when faced with challenging behavior is both the patience and the willingness to provide the conditions conducive to healthy development, both of which are easier to access if our expectations are realistic.

 

So, given this understanding does that mean that we have nothing to do but bide our time and wait for development to happen? Well, yes and no. Yes: development is what will ultimately “solve” the “problem” of impulse control and No: there are some things we can do while waiting that can support prefrontal cortex development and to help us support and stay connected to children who don’t yet have their mixed feelings (or teens who seem to have lost theirs).

 

 

  1. Work the attachment. Attachment is the womb of prefrontal cortex development. It is our job as parents to insure that our children do not need to work at attachment; the work of attachment is ours alone. As Dr. Neufeld puts it, we must extend to our children “an unconditional invitation to exist in our presence” and must also convey to them that our connection to them cannot and will not be disrupted by their behavior (no matter how egregious). As attachment is the womb of prefrontal cortex development cultivating deep attachment is the best and most powerful “intervention” we have around the issue of impulse control.

 

  1. Prime mixed feelings. Before our children are able to hold two feelings in mind at once, we can model this for them. We can talk about “being of two minds” and “having mixed feelings” about various things that come up in daily life. When my boys were younger, my husband and I would often mention our mixed feelings about various events of the during our family dinnertime conversations. Caveat: of course we would never want to share with our children any mixed feelings that have to do with them, such as “On the one hand I want to pull my hair out because I feel so frustrated with you and on the other hand I love you very much”!

 

  1. Remember that big feelings are harder to mix. When the prefrontal cortex is developing we may see evidence of mixed feelings around less intense situations but in situations that involve high levels of frustration or alarm our children may seem to be “regressing”; they aren’t, it’s simply a fact that the bigger and more intense a feelings, the harder it is to mix. Understanding this can help us to be patient with our children in those intense times.

 

  1. Don’t use discipline that divides. The most common discipline methods—time-outs and consequences—strain the attachment bonds between us and our children. In the case of time-outs we are sending the message that certain behavior will result in a loss of proximity to us and in the case of consequences we are using our understanding of our child (and what is important to them) against them. When we keep healthy development in mind, preserving and nurturing attachment becomes our highest priority.

 

  1. Be creative and flexible: Rather than repeatedly getting frustrated with our kids we would do better to change the situation. A client of mine was having daily struggles with her five-year-old son around his bike riding. Every day she asked him to stop on the sidewalk before riding across driveways to make sure no one was backing out and, every day, he would soar down the sidewalk without stopping. She was feeling frustrated, threatening consequences (“you won’t be able to ride your bike if you don’t listen to me”) and thinking that her son was disobedient and willful. When we talked about five-year-old’s brains and the fact that they rarely have the capacity to hold two conflicting feelings (I like to listen to my mom and it is so much fun to ride my bike fast), this mom understood that she was simply asking her son to do something that he wasn’t capable of. I offered her the idea that when we cannot “change” our child, we can change the situation to make it better for everyone. This idea made sense to her and she decided that the daily walks bike rides would now take place in the park where there were no driveways to worry about! This was much more enjoyable for both of them and, more importantly, she stopped threatening her son and seeing him in a negative light.

 

  1. Be Patient: Right up there with working the attachment having patience with our young, non-integrative children is one of the most important “interventions” we have. We need to remember the slow pace of development; growing up is messy and it takes a long time. Patience requires our own adult integrative functioning, calling on us to hold both our frustration and our caring at the same time. If we find ourselves continually struggling to have patience with our young children, getting some extra parenting support can be helpful.

 

The ability to hold opposing feelings together in one’s mind is both a hallmark of maturity and the key to many of the qualities we hold dear (in addition to impulse control) such as patience, forgiveness and responsibility. When we expect our children to have this ability before they are ready this “expectation gap” can lead to responses that actually delay or impede the development we are hoping for. Realistic expectations and strategies for more gracefully biding our time can make the toddler, early childhood and early adolescent years more generative and joyful, for both parent and child!

 

Are you interested in learning more about attachment and development? I am bringing Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s Vital Connection to Portland for the first time ever this Fall! If you are the parent of a child aged 2-18, you don’t want to miss your chance to take this amazing course!

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