Impulse control and self-regulation are a large part of many therapies with young children who have difficulty with waiting, stopping, following directions, and accepting limits. These skills are part of a larger set of abilities called the “executive functions,” which include emotion regulation, organization, attention, inhibiting one’s actions, and time management. Research shows that the area of the brain responsible for these complex tasks, the pre-frontal cortex, continues to develop into one’s mid-twenties. No wonder our little ones are still learning and growing and in these areas! With practice and persistence, we can help our little ones gain connections and strengthen executive functions. The games below are used to do just that.
The Waiting Game
This clever game gives children the chance to learn the ever-challenging skill of waiting.
- Pick a space clear of distractions, and allow your child to pick an enticing toy with several components to it. I like to use a train track with many cars, or a box of sand with a bucket of toy animals.
- Allow your child to pick two or three small toys to play with at a time (2 or three trains or animals, for example). Keep most of the toys in your control, just behind your back or on a higher surface.
- Set up a timer and tell them they are allowed to play freely with their chosen toys until the timer goes off, at which point they can pick 2-3 more toys.
- While they wait, teach them that they can have fun with what they already have! Engage and distract them with the toys they do have and remind that they will have to wait for more. Point to the timer and let them know how much time is left. If they reach for more toys before the timer goes off, gently remind them that you know it is hard, but that they are practicing waiting.
- Congratulate your child when they successfully wait for extra toys.
This is a fun game for little ones who just can’t seem to keep their hands off things.
- Give them toys they love and practice saying “hands up,” every 30 to 90 seconds.
- When they look at you and put their hands up, give them a big smile and praise them for listening! This will help next time you are in Ikea or Safeway and little hands start to go astray.
Simon Says or Red Light/Green Light
- These games require careful listening and a whole lot of self-control. Bonus, they get kids up and moving around.
Deep Breathing with Bubbles/Balloons
- To reduce impulses and self-soothe, try encouraging deep breathing. This sends signals from the body to the brain to help calm down. Encourage your children to blow bubbles or try to blow up a balloon. They don’t have to get it just right (they often can’t blow up balloons just yet), but the action will help them experience deep breathing. They will then be able to “pretend” they are blowing bubbles in the future.
Elmo’s “Belly Breathing” Song
- Elmo’s Belly Breathing song can be very helpful for children who are a bit older and can make the connection between feeling angry and taking belly breaths to soothe themselves and reduce their impulses.
- Reward systems can be helpful to reinforce and eliminate specific behaviors. For young children, it is most helpful to connect one behavior (i.e., keep your hands to yourself) with one reward (i.e., a cookie or 3 M&M’s).
- To encourage multiple positive behaviors throughout the day, I recommend breaking the day down into discrete chunks (breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner, for example) and use those times as “checkpoints” to see if the child has been following their rule. For example, if the rule is “you have to keep your hands to yourself to earn 1 mini Oreo,” check in at these times to see if your child has earned their treat. If they have earned their treat, give them their reward, say a few encouraging words, and remind them they have a chance for another treat in a few hours if they follow their rule. If they don’t earn it, say, “Oh, looks like you didn’t keep your hands to yourself; let’s try to earn again next time.” No long lectures are needed!
- Of course, it is important for parents to help their children build internal motivation to manage their impulses through love, support, and fruitful conversation. Many little ones, however, are striving to manage very strong impulses, and external rewards can offer them the structure they need to be successful.