Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 8-year-old son struggles with impulsivity and has little to no friends that initiate contact with him. He can participate and engage with them but there doesn’t seem to be any bond. How can I help him with his impulse control and fostering friendships?
You are not alone in worrying about your son’s impulsivity and its impact on his friendships; a lot of children and families face this challenge. It is good that you are noticing the impact of his impulsivity now. You will want to continue to watch how this changes as he grows up to know if additional intervention is needed.
Let me start by putting childhood bonding into perspective. For children between the ages of 6-10, the purpose of playing with other children is typically to provide entertainment or to fill a need for play. Children in your son’s age range are normally not emotionally developed enough to experience the level of bonding with friends as teens or adults might. This does not mean that bonding is not vital for young children. It means that parent(s) at this point are still the primary source for developing a positive sense of security, comfort, safety, and love.
Play at this age is more about self-expression than achieving emotional connection. It is common for children to jump from one friend to another within weeks or days at a time. Bonding type of behavior is not a high skill set for this age range, regardless of impulsive behavior being part of the mix.
Regarding impulse control, a good place to start is to teach your son the “stop and think” concept. Teach him that before we do things, we must “stop,” meaning pause and slow down, and “think” about what could happen as a result of our behavior. Start by introducing this concept to him privately. Come up with some examples that might apply to him directly.
For example, when you see a dog eating food you can either come up behind the dog and try to pet her while she is eating, or you could wait for her to stop eating before approaching; each choice could lead to two very different outcomes. Help your son identify all the possible consequences based on each choice. Role-play and practice different scenarios.
Once you have practiced “stop and think” privately, the next step is to help him use it while he is interacting with others. Together, develop a code word or phrase to use when you observe him acting impulsively. The purpose of the code word or phrase is to remind him to “stop and think”. This immediate intervention can be used when your son is interacting with you, others caregiving adults, siblings and play dates as they are able to happen.
In addition to helping your son practice these new skills, assess the intensity and impact of his behavior on others. Consider the following questions:
- Does your son do things that make other children avoid him?
- Are his impulses leading other children to become angry with him or yell at him?
- Do you notice other children fighting with your son?
- Does he hurt others unintentionally?
- Do you notice new children starting to play with your son only to find out that they stop playing with him after he does something?
- Do you find that other children are quick to “tell” on your son because he is doing things they don’t like?
- Are you or other caregiving adults frequently stopping him before he makes a big mistake?
- Does he receive a lot of consequences at home because he doesn’t stop and think?
- Do teachers express concern about your son interrupting other students, speaking out of turn, fidgeting, or not paying attention in class?
If you answered yes to more of these questions than not, please note that your son’s impulsive behavior is severe enough that it could be very difficult for him to control himself with practice alone. It will not get better through punishment or parental imposed consequences.
If his impulsive behavior is interfering with his or other students learning, if it is leading to others getting hurt, or his behavior is pushing others away from interacting with him, I recommend finding a therapist that specializes in childhood impulsive behaviors. Therapy can provide more intensive impulse control exercises that build off the “stop and think” concept. A skilled therapist can also provide further assessment of other alternatives; one of which might be to meet with a physician and consider medication.
The determination to consider medication is not a suggestion I make lightly; this can be a very difficult decision for parents to make and an expert evaluation and assessment should occur first. While the use of medication management is often misused or overused as a solution to behavior problems, when it comes to diagnosable impulse control issues, medication that address such issues is well supported by research and has a high success rate.
If you are considering medication, thoroughly vet your medication options with a physician and evaluate what your child could gain or lose by giving it a try. It might require several trials until you find the right medication. Again, do not go down the medication path without an expert evaluation and assessment first so that you are sure you have identified all other factors that could be related to your son’s impulsivity.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.