Help! My Child is Out of Control!

5 tips for helping your out-of-control or tantrumming child develop self- and impulse-control skills

ignoring screaming out of control girl


Are you concerned that your child is “out of control” when she is acting aggressively, talking over others, grabbing, have difficulty taking turns or simply doing things you have asked her not to? To understand and help your child (and yourself), you need to first understand regulation.

Many parents get frustrated by their child’s lack of self-control or impulse control, especially when their child knows the rules and the consequences of breaking them. Often, the problem is that children just don’t have the skills to manage strong impulses. Children begin to develop these skills between ages 2 and 5, but their impulses are not well managed because their “rational brain" ― which allows for planning, foresight and considering others ― is not fully developed. For most young children this age, self-control is nonexistent or limited at best, and it is a skill that will take years to master. In fact, children’s ability to regulate for themselves will not become evident until they begin to approach the ripe old age of 7. 

A child’s temperament, his innate way of reacting to the world, could also make him more impulsive than others. In order to become capable of self-control, children who are easily distressed and become very agitated may need different treatment than children who are a little more “chill.”

Increased self control will develop as your child continues to mature. But there are many things that we can do as parents and teachers to help them develop and nurture these skills and traits.

There’s good reason to work toward strong self-regulation. Research has shown that kids with higher levels of impulse control develop better academic skills over time, and have bigger vocabularies and higher test scores in both math and literacy.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the spectrum, children with below-average impulse control are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, become obese, smoke and become dependent on alcohol or drugs later in life.

The good news is, self-control is not static, and like muscle strength, it can be developed over time.

So what can you do to help your ‘out-of-control’ child?

1. Acknowledge and empathize.

Simply acknowledge that in many cases her lack of impulse control is developmentally appropriate and empathize or validate her feelings. When your child is upset ― perhaps she is having a fun time at the park and doesn't want to leave when you need her to ― start by letting her know that you understand. Try simply saying something like, “It’s so hard to leave the park” or, “Oh man, it sounds like you really want to stay at the park!” It is important to connect and let your child know that you understand and accept her feelings first before you say or do anything else. 

2. You’re the coach.

Use an emotion-coaching or problem-solving approach with your child when there is a big emotion or behavior you need to deal with. Research indicates that children with emotion-coaching parents recover from stressful situations faster, have fewer negative emotions and develop the skills needed to manage challenges on their own. In order to be an emotion coach, you must empathize, help your child to become clear about what he actually wanted or needed, acknowledge his feelings and needs while setting limits on behavior, and guide him through a brainstorming and problem-solving process. 

3. Hey ― it’s OK!

Give your child a break! All humans have limited amounts of self-control. And we use up the energy we have for self-control throughout the day. If we continue to ask children to repeatedly perform tasks or follow our requests without a break, they will become less and less successful. If homework and housework need to get done, be mindful that small breaks for play or relaxing will help your child recharge to keep going. When breaks are part of the routine, children will be more successful at accomplishing what you require of them. 

4. Play games. 

Play games with your children that practice self-control. Games such as “Simon Says,” “Red Light, Green Light” or “Follow the Leader” require impulse control. Another option is to play “Freeze.” With “Freeze,” children dance to music, and when the music stops, they should hold their position until the music starts again. Research from Stanford University shows that playing memory games can also improve impulse control. 

5. They are watching you! 

Model and practice self-control, self-calming and restraint! Your children aren’t going to do what you say; they are going to do what you do. One area in which adults tend to have limited self-control is in the use of media or devices. One way to model self-control or restraint is to create and enforce limits on your own use of devices. There are apps that can do this for you, or you can simply remove email or Facebook from your mobile device to limit the impulse to check them unnecessarily. The goal is ultimately to check your devices intentionally and not impulsively. (This becomes especially important as your child grows older and has access to her own devices.) 

Being mindful of how you respond to anger, frustration and disappointment will also strongly influence how your child responds to these strong emotions. Self-calming is an important skill that can be easily modeled by saying things like, “Uh-oh, I just dropped the dinner salad on the floor! How frustrating! I’m going to take a deep breath, and then I will need to clean up this mess and start over." Modeling self-talk, expressing frustration verbally and employing self-soothing skills will all help your child to do the same when he has his own strong emotions or reactions. 

Increased self-control will develop as your child continues to mature. But there are many things that we can do as parents and teachers to help nurture these skills and traits. We encourage you to first acknowledge what is and is not developmentally appropriate for your child, and then pick one or two ideas from the list above to try out and see how things unfold in your home.

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