Impulsivity or Defiance
Impulsivity or Defiance?

The child who has been told multiple times not to throw sand at his classmates, yet he continues to throw sand.

Or the student who will not stop talking when the teacher is talking.

Or the one who repeatedly destroys other students’ creations.

The child who says whatever comes to their mind, no matter how insulting or hurtful.

You all know them.

If you are a parent or teacher of one of them, your life is filled with frustration.

These are the children who do mystifying things for no apparent reason. They can be destructive and unkind. Other children don’t want to play with them. They exasperate their parents and teachers regularly. They seem to defy most direction and are clearly out of control.

So what is going on?

Impulse control issues are real. They are the result of a difference in how the brain functions. We mistakenly believe that children with impulse control act too quickly. In reality, they act too slowly when it comes to stopping themselves. The physical or verbal action happens before they can stop. Researchers at Vanderbilt applied a mathematical model to impulsivity that showed stop signal task times are significantly longer in children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders than in neurotypical children. They need more time to stop themselves.

Impulsivity can be caused by overexcitabilities, ADHD, anxiety, or brain chemical imbalance. There is a specific deficit of dopamine regulation in the brains of people prone to impulsivity. Too much dopamine is produced in certain regions of the brain associated with reward and motivation. This can cause people to act without considering consequences. It can make it extremely difficult for them to stop themselves from doing something, even if they know they shouldn’t be doing it.

Many people think that children who can’t control themselves should be punished so they can learn what they are doing is wrong. I believe children want to do the best they can. I don’t believe that even the most defiant children are that way because they like the feeling or the end result. They do it because they can’t help it. Children with impulse control issues deserve kindness, understanding, and love. They know what they are doing is out of sync with their peers and with adult expectations. We should never punish them for their disabilities. Would you ever punish a child in a wheelchair for the inability to run? No, of course wouldn’t. It’s equally unfair to punish a child with an invisible disability like poor impulse control.

We can help them by giving them opportunities to succeed. Here are some support strategies:

  •      Give them time and space to do what they love.
  •      Teach them mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing or visualization.
  •      Give them time to and support to stop the behavior.
  •      Give them plenty of chances to be active.
  •      Help them have successful social interaction through modeling and intervention.
  •      Have a sense of humor and help them have a sense of humor when dealing with problems.
  •      Help them verbally express their feelings.
  •      Model good impulse control.

However, the most helpful thing we can do is to love them. To let them see themselves as wonderful beings through our eyes. The more self love they feel, the happier they are, the happier they are, the better they behave, the better they behave, the more successful they are, the more successful they are, the more they love themselves. The adults in their lives have the power to create a cycle of success. It is a gift we can give our children.

-Dr. Melanie Hayes, Big Minds Founder and Director