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Impulse Control: The Early Years

How does impulse control fit into the violence prevention puzzle?

Impulse control, sometimes called self-regulation, refers to a child's ability to control his or her behavior. It is natural for young children to show a mix of strong emotions such as excitement, joy, anger, frustration, and disappointment. An important part of growing up is learning how to show emotions at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. Children who learn to control their anger or frustration, and who use words to express their feelings, get along better with others. Lack of impulse control and an inability to manage anger are often the cause of behavior problems in children and contribute to problems with friendships during the school years.

ADHD is a disorder exhibited, in part, by poor impulse control. Children displaying impulsivity may have difficulty taking turns. They may disrupt a classroom by blurting out answers to questions, or they may move from one activity to another without completing each task.

Children who have poor impulse control are also more likely to take greater risks and engage in dangerous behavior during adolescence and into adulthood [2]. Research suggests that children start to develop appropriate ways to control their impulses and regulate their behavior as early as 3 years of age [1]. Parents can reduce the chance of violence in children's lives by positively modeling and teaching children different ways to control their anger and impulses [3; 4].

Many young children commonly show their frustration and anger by hitting, screaming, or sometimes even biting. When parents calmly provide words to help children express their feelings and provide children with other strategies for meeting their needs, while at the same time maintaining firm and fair limits for behavior, they help children develop impulse control. For example, when parents see children taking a toy from another child, they might step in to discuss the feelings of others and the need to take turns. If a child gets mad playing a game and pushes or hits another child, parents should first make sure that the other child is safe, and then let both children know that hitting others is not permitted. Then parents might suggest words that the children could use to express their strong feelings. Parents can encourage children to consider the needs of others.

When parents suggest a reason for choosing one option over another, they are helping children develop empathy, self-control, and problem-solving abilities. These lessons in a young child's life form the basis of self-discipline. Early self-discipline or self-control is related to self-control later in childhood and throughout life [1].

Who can parents talk to if they are concerned about their child's lack of self-control?

Child care providers and early childhood teachers, pediatricians, other health care professionals, parenting educators, and family counselors are all likely to be able to suggest resources and help parents assess whether a problem requires additional intervention.


[1] Bronson, Martha. (2000). Recognizing and supporting the development of self-regulation in young children. Young Children, 55(2), 32-37.

[2] Coie, John D., & Dodge, Kenneth A. (1998). Aggression and antisocial behavior. In Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development (pp. 779-862). New York: Wiley.

[3] Marion, Marian. (1997). Helping young children deal with anger. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document No. ED414077)

[4] Positive discipline. (1990). ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document No. ED327271)

Adapted from:
Violence Prevention Resource Guide for Parents
by Peggy Patten and Anne S. Robertson
December 2001
Page last modified or reviewed on February 7, 2012