Impulse control is a critical skill to develop because all other skills, behaviours, and even learning depend on it. This skill takes time and effort to develop, which is why kids need help to manage in the meantime. To help you get started, here is the most important information you need to know to manage impulsive behaviours in kids with ADHD.
As with anything, you need to first understand ADHD. Their brains make it hard for them to self-regulate. Therefore, they need adult support longer than other kids to manage impulsive behaviours. So, by understanding the nature of ADHD allows you to practice patience, which is critical for success.
Next, you need to understand impulse control. Again, this is a critical skill for kids to develop. Without it, no other skills activate. A child can’t practice paying attention if he’s already become distracted. A child can’t learn to problem solve if she has already freaked out in an emotional outburst.
Set them up for success
For anything to work, kids need to experience success. Therefore, set kids up for success. Although they still need to learn to control their behaviours, their success is greatly affected by the structure, support, learning opportunities, modelling, and reinforcement they are exposed to; especially at first. There are several ways to help promote their success.
Get their buy-in and motivate
If kids are not motivated to work on developing skills to manage impulsive behaviours, they will have a hard time putting forth the effort needed to do it. For some kids, the natural consequences can be enough:
Pull other kids’ hair? They are not going to want to be friends.
If you share, other kids will want to play with you.
However, kids with ADHD have a hard time remembering what they need to do when they need to do it and why it is important. Therefore, they often need extra reinforcement and reminders to stay on track.
Unfortunately, kids with ADHD (and especially those who have a hard time managing impulsive behaviours) often get a lot of negative feedback and don’t feel they can do anything right anyway, so why bother? Or, they start to feel defeated and try to defend themselves.
All kids want to do good. And guess what: all kids ARE doing at least some good things throughout their day. It is a matter of being sure to recognize those times. Maybe Sally is off-task, chatting with her friend when she should be working. But look! She pulled her book out and gathered all of the materials she needs. That is praise worthy. If kids are praised throughout their day for what they are doing good, they will be motivated to keep doing good.
While praise may be enough for some, more tangible rewards like tokens to earn extra screen-time or activity can be more motivating.
Be a good role model
It is important you model expected behaviours too. If you are stressed and lose control by yelling at your kids, they are going to have a tough time keeping their cool too. Or learning how to handle situations calmly.
Talking through how you make decisions can be good learning opportunities too. You can talk through the steps on how you decide what to make for dinner with fewer ingredients than you expected. Or how to manage a stressful situation you are in. Or processing a rude remark someone made to you earlier in the day. All of this shows kids how to manage.
Create an ADHD-friendly environment
The best way to help manage impulsive behaviours in kids with ADHD, at least to start, is creating an ADHD friendly environment. We all know structure, patience, support, and safety are helpful. Other things also include:
Reducing the opportunity for impulsive behaviours to occur in the first place is helpful. For example, if Johnny cannot help pull girls’ ponytails, then make sure he does not sit behind a girl with long hair.
Kids with ADHD do best with a “minute manager;” ongoing supervision in which an adult frequently checks in on kids’, especially during problem times. If Suzie cannot play without hitting her younger brother when left on their own, then only allow them to play when you can be close by. If Tommy cannot complete his math worksheet on his own, then having someone sit next to him can be helpful.
Often, we are too vague in telling kids how to behave. Explain exactly what behaviours you want to see. What does being nice mean? Or being respectful? Being good? Playing nicely?
Also be sure to state behaviours in the positive. That is, tell kids exactly what behaviour you DO want to see and not what you don’t want to see. Often we will say things like “no hitting!” Ironically, our brain will focus on the behaviour we are not supposed to do (so hitting is still likely to occur). Besides, kids might not know what they should do instead of hit, so always state what you do want to see happen so everyone is on the same page.
Kids are empowered and more likely to follow through if they are part of the rule making process.
Make it visual
Post the expectations somewhere where everyone can see it to help them remember the rules. For some kids, having an extra visual cue – even a little sticker on the edge of their desk or at their coat hook is enough of a reminder of what they need to do.
Give lots of breaks
Physical activity is important to help minimize and manage impulsive behaviours. Be sure kids get lots of time outside, exercise, and movement breaks throughout the day.
Behaviour Strategies to Manage Impulsive Behaviours
Of course, we cannot always manipulate the environment to manage and avoid impulsive behaviours. And we’re not always around to catch kids being good.
Kids need to learn skills to manage their behaviours too, which we can do through behavioural approaches. The key to success is practicing new behaviours (rather than being nagged about them all the time). Kids with ADHD have trouble with the point of performance, which means they know what they are and are not supposed to do. Which is why nagging doesn’t help – they already know it! The problem is actually doing what they need to do when they need to do it.
Just as it is important to be explicit about what behaviours are expected for a child, it is also important to tell kids exactly what will happen if the rules are or are not followed. Have kids help brainstorm what appropriate consequences could be – kids usually have some great ideas that are meaningful for them.
Consistent follow through
Once kids know the expectations and what will happen depending on their behaviour, be sure to consistently follow through. If you are unreliable in follow through, behaviour change is not likely to happen as effectively (if at all). And being reliable is even more important when it comes to praise and reinforcement; otherwise, kids have no reason to put in the effort they need to.
We all know consistency is important. However, here is one thing you may not have considered. Consistency is especially important to manage impulsive behaviours because kids learn two things: 1. it is WORTH practicing self control and 2. I CAN practice self control.
Researchers have shown that, developing self-control is greatly affected by kids’ environment. Having a reliable environment in which adults respond consistently, even for just a few minutes, greatly shaped kids behaviours.
Swift follow through
Just as consistency is important, so too is immediacy. If too long of a delay happens between their behaviour and the imposed consequence, kids have a harder time learning from their behaviour.
And consequences don’t just mean punishment. They can include reinforcement and praise as well. It is critically important to catch them being good when they are doing what you expect of them to reinforce more of those behaviours as well.
Having the consequences listed can be helpful too – especially if things go sideways and you have to implement consequences and kids are thinking you’re not being fair. You can go back to the visual with the child and review together what happens if a behaviour occurs.
Practice delayed gratification
We now know that delayed gratification – waiting to get what we want – is tied to long-term success (you can read more studies here and here). Teaching kids delayed gratification is important to manage impulsive behaviours.
The kids who were successful in waiting for what they wanted found something else to do as they waited. Therefore, teaching appropriate replacement behaviours (e.g., things they can do instead of problem behaviour) is helpful. The more FUN and engaging the replacement behaviour, the more effective it will be.
Practice makes perfect!
Practicing is important, which you would first do in a structured situation in which they will experience success to get started.
If, for example, kids have trouble keeping their cool at the grocery store because they want the chocolate bar, you could outline the expectations and together come up with something they could do to wait for the chocolate bar. Perhaps they can flip through an Archie comic while waiting in line. If you think they can only wait for 1 minute in line before getting antsy, then set your timer for 30 seconds (remember, we want to set them up for success) and if they can stand calmly until the timer goes off, then they can have the chocolate right away. Once they achieve success, you can slowly increase expectations.
Read more about how to teach delayed gratification.
Kids with ADHD don’t have a strong internal voice that helps guide their behaviour to do good, which makes it really hard for them to manage impulsive behaviours. So, we need to teach how to create scripts for themselves to guide their behaviour.
For example, if Billy has trouble waiting in line without touching someone, a script he can repeat to himself might be, “Both feet on the ground, hands in my pocket. Both feet on the ground, hands in my pocket.” And then practice in a structured situation (e.g., with only one other child in front of him for 10 seconds with adult supervision), reward him for being successful, and slowly increase expectations until he can stand in line without any problems.
Teach self awareness
To manage impulsive behaviours, kids need to be aware that they are even behaving impulsively. Kids with ADHD have a hard time with this and need to develop self awareness. Teaching them think about what they are doing whenever they hear a key phrase, such as “Stop and think!” can be helpful. They can think about what they are supposed to be doing and what they are actually doing.
Reward for accurate responding (even if they are off-task) so that they learn to be honest; otherwise, kids will always say they are doing what they are supposed to be doing to avoid punishment and fail to develop awareness at all. If they are praised for accurate responding vs. behaviour initially, they will be better at monitoring their behaviours.
Make the link between behaviours and outcomes
Learning about their behaviour choices and whichever choice they make is directly related to the outcome (vs. you being mean when you go to consequence). For example, my girls know that whining and yelling do not get me to listen to them. In the moment I might say, “You can keep your cool and we can chat about what to do next over hot chocolate or you can continue to yell at me and I will leave you alone until you calm. Up to you kiddo.”
It can be helpful kids start by predicting what would happen if they __________ (e.g., screamed at their teacher if she said they couldn’t go out for recess). Or what they could do to ______________ (e.g., get their teacher to smile at them). And then have them experiment with the positive things they can do to earn a specific positive response!
Teach them to problem solve
To start, use those predictable times when impulsive behaviours tend to show up. When kids have to stand in line. When they go out for recess. When they are left alone in the kitchen. For these situations, brainstorm ideas with your child about what they can do instead of the problem behaviour. Find those replacement behaviours. And then, go practice.
First, brainstorm all the things kids can do if someone comes and steals their toy. Generate as many ideas as possible – this is important for problem solving because our first idea is not always the best idea so kids need to learn there are lots of alternatives.
Once you have your list, identify the goods and bad of each choice. Then choose two to three options to practice. Our first plan does not always pan out how we expect, so it is important to have a back-up plan too.
Set up a situation where a child (purposefully!) grabs the toy from the other, who has to practice the replacement behaviours for screaming/hitting (e.g., perhaps offering another toy) while you are there to help them be successful. Or, have kids practice calmly transitioning off their video game to go do something else.
If they are successful, be sure there is a pay-off that makes it worth it to keep practicing and using the new skills. Maybe it is giving them access to another super fun toy they normally would not have access to. Maybe they can go back to the video game with more time later. We definitely want them to be successful, so help them so that they can be immediately reinforced and see good things can come their way.
When kids are not successful, understand why. Perhaps the first strategy was not effective, so experiment with a different idea.
To get kids into the habit of problem solving for themselves, use this problem solving template to help get them started. You may also be interested in the steps for video modelling to help kids become more aware of their behaviours.
Looking for other things to read? Here are two of my personal favourites when it comes to managing behaviours:
- Taking Charge of ADHD, Third Edition: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents (Russell Barkley)
- The Explosive Child (Ross Greene)