How do you help a four-year-old with poor impulse control? My son Lewis does the same thing over and over again. He is genuinely sorry each time when we tell him off and explain why a particular action is wrong or inappropriate. But time after time he simply forgets and does it again. The reason this really worries me is in regard to his safety when he’s doing things like crossing the road or climbing all over his bunks.
Amy G, by email
Your family has got into a sequence that goes something like this: four-year-old does something that he knows he isn’t supposed to do; parents growl and explain; four-year-old apologises (apparently genuinely) and feels perfectly free to repeat the same behaviour again. Imagine that I could interview your child and ask him, “Are you allowed to climb all over your bunks?” I can pretty well guarantee that he would look slightly shamefaced, stare at the floor and say “No!” This tells us that he knows exactly what he’s doing; he just chooses not to.
Another way of thinking about the issue is to ask ourselves, “Is my child bright or stupid? Does he usually get things after three or four explanations?” If he is not doing these impulsive things because he doesn’t understand, why is he doing these things? Because he can! Get firm. Each time he does an apparently impulsive act that he knows that he shouldn’t do, pop him in his room (or any other convenient spot). As you do so, say sternly, “You know you are not allowed to [whatever the deed was].”
After four minutes, release him without a word. If you do this each time he behaves badly, you will be amazed at how fast he develops generalised impulse control.
Diane Levy provides expert answers to your parenting queries. Send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Diane’s parenting books are available in book shops.