Ideas for impulsive boys

Parenting can be very lonely - especially when your child is frustrating or embarassing you.  I started writing to share my experiences and join a community of practical, grounded parents who know there are no perfect children or perfect parents, but want to enjoy parenting.  A mother of a 6 year old boy recently contacted me for ideas to help her with her impulsive child.

My 6 year old son struggles with behaviors as you described of your son.  He's impulsive and is very short fused.  I was curious to know some of the strategies you have tried with your son.  My son has especially gotten bad over the summer.  (I am a teacher and so he stays home with me).  I just feel so bad for him b/c he can be so good but I know SOMETHING is bothering him and making him act like this.  Please help!

 I'm not a mental health professional or a teacher - so I'll share what's worked for us as just that - personal experience and no more. 

  1. Take a look at sleep.  My son is much more impulsive when he's slightly tired - like 30 minutes off.  We forgo homework, which I hope your six year old doesn't have, time with us and pretty much everything else in exchange for going to bed at the same time every night.
  2. Try a simple reward chart - it has to be broken into very short intervals and he has to know what success looks like - so be specific. He should be able to earn points every 15 minutes and when he has a lot of points, there's some reward (a favorite meal, time one on one with a parent, in my son's case - time in a batting cage).  Examples are (in 15 minutes intervals): waits turn to play/speak, responds the first time asked, shares a toy.
  3. Give him an alternative way to express his physical energy - and it will be a physical alternative.  We gave my son a soccer trainer where he could kick the ball very hard and it wouldn't go anywhere.  We taught him some yoga positions that he could create pressure on his body that would calm him.  We got him permission to go run/pushups/burpees/squats.  Something that could not hurt someone else and would help him burn the energy.
  4. He's reacting because he is hurt. Something or someone frustrated or hurt his feelings. Don't invalidate what he's feeling (even if it seems trivial or out of proportion).  Validate it - son, I think you are upset/hurt/frustrated. Son - tell me what upset/hurt/frustrated you.  I'm sorry you feel that way, it must be very hard. We may not be able to change what happened, but we can choose what happens next.  What would you like that to be?  Make sure every adult who supervises him follows this sort of script - he'll calm down much faster if you don't fight him.  This doesn't mean approval - just validate his feelings before holding him accountable for his choices.
  5. Try to teach him a mantra or other mechanism to cool off when he feels upset.  This is really hard for adults - but if you can make it a habit - count to twenty in three languages, add two really big numbers together, something that redirects his mind - you'll help him for life.

He's a work in progress and virtually every interesting, driven man I know was an impulsive and hot headed youth.

When he is closer to 8, if its still an issue, I recommend investing in comprehensive academic, cognitive and behavioral testing with a psychologist qualified and experienced to do all three. We discovered that our son is exceptionally bright/gifted - but that his brain processes information incredibly fast yet auditory processing was well below average.  "People talk too slow" - and he hears so well that all the other noises get in the way while he is waiting for people to talk faster. Once we and his teachers understood his gifts and his issue, we could insist on providing directions to him in writing and giving him an escape from assemblies when the sound is too much.

One thing I noticed you mentioned is that your son found some sort of release.  That is something I am having trouble finding with my son .... other than video games ... *sigh*.  Also, We had my son evaluated by a preschool team and they did say that he is very bright/gifted but also has trouble processing information.

Do you also think that summer vacation is especially hard on kiddos like our boys b/c it is less structured?  What  can I do to help that?  Should I have a set schedule every day (soooo not my personality haha)

We have very strict rules on video games - during the summer, they can use them for 2 hours on the weekend (while we sleep) and one hour, twice a week.  They have unlimited use of Kahn Academy and Typing Ace.  But they are older than your boy - frankly, I'd take away the power cords to the video machines for a few weeks so that he learns another soothing solution.

We make our kids read a book, go outside, draw a picture.  I believe (and there is research to support it) that video games are soothing/brain numbing.  Does your son like sports?  building things? music?

Finally, I live by routines.  The kids know what to expect and when to expect it.  In between those structures, they are free.  It's much less anxious for the kids and we find behavior is much better.  For example, they know they are leaving the house by 8am.  So when they get up, they have to get dressed, eat, organize their stuff before 8am.  They can do whatever else they want as long as those three things are done.  Then they go to camp during the day - or have some sort of input into their day (we're going hiking and then can play outside for a few hours, then we are going shopping).  So - I would suggest creating a predictable routine with plenty of time for self-expression, imagination and unstructured play.  But let them know when it will end so that they can plan their play. Teaching executive function while you are at it.

It's not easy - but parenting never is.  Impulsive kids are interesting, creative, energetic and once they learn to harness their capabilities - they truly shine.

My tips for managing 7-year-old boy outbursts

My son is bright, athletic and unfortunately, quick tempered with the tendency to react physically. He runs away. He’ll hit someone. Sometimes he’ll curse (which is actually an improvement, but still not appropriate). We’re working with his school to help him develop the emotional maturity to express anger and frustration rather than act on it. We know that by the time he’s nine, it’ll be better. But he’s seven and it wasn’t a big surprise when the sleepaway camp sent an email that he was having some “behavior issues”.  Most impressive was that they asked for strategies to help him succeed. 

My son isn’t particularly unique – his emotional development is normal. Average. Unimpressive, but not clinically delayed or anything.  And the motherhood manual doesn’t include strategies to help a little boy react older than he is. So – here’s my addendum to the motherhood manual – my top ten tricks for managing a 7-year-old boy.

  1. Create a meaningful reward chart
    Tried and true, goal oriented boys like to have a target to reach. Create a reward chart for the bunk, group, siblings or class so that they can support each other.  Make tasks that they need to do together in order to succeed. Make the reward something they really like – a pizza party, ice cream social, extra baseball game.

  2. Put him on a team
    Make the group a team. Find a way to get them to “score”.  When they aren’t in the game, can they score by cheering for their friends? Who is the loudest cheering “team”? When they are waiting at the flagpole or before a meal, is there a game about finding the coolest cloud in the sky or the biggest leaf on a tree?  They like to compete.  Have them work together.

  3. Create and stick to a routine
    Routines make children feel secure. They need to know what is going to happen and when – how long will they have to wait?  When is the next game?  Tell them the routine, try to make it consistent from day to day and if the routine involves time, give them a way to tell time (position of the sun or shadows is fun).

  4. Give him a job
    Responsibility breeds self-respect. Each member of the bunk can have a job. They should know what their job is (line leader, bathroom inspector, laundry distributor, ball collector, game organizer, etc). Their job might aid in achieving the reward chart.

  5. Set expectations before the start of a game
    Few boys will ever want to sit out of part of a game, even if they should. Explain up front that during the game, you may get called out and when you are called out, you need to go to the sidelines quickly and cheer.  And then, when the game is over, we’ll start a new game and everyone can play. Except in a tournament when you are out for good. Then you cheer!

  6. Give him words to express his feelings
    Boys often do not have an extensive emotional vocabulary and its important not to talk him out of his feelings.  If he’s mad, let him be mad.  Talk about how it feels to be mad and what made him mad. Then ask him what he can do about feeling mad.  Until he decides he doesn’t feel mad anymore.

  7. Don’t let him idle/stand in line
    Idle hands go wild. So – if there is waiting in line, give them something to do.  Sing a waiting song…do pushups…strike a pose…climb a fence.  Anything that keeps the hands active and not on each other.

  8. Give him someone/something to take care of
    My son does especially well when he feels responsible for someone else’s well being.  It could be the dog but it’s better if it’s another child. He’s an attentive friend and big brother if he’s needed. Pair boys up and give them the responsibility to help each other make good choices.

  9. Supervise especially in down time
    Even though it might get mind-numbingly boring or infuriatingly irritating, you have to watch them and interfere if they cannot resolve a conflict. It’s a delicate balance between helicoptering and Lord of the Flies. But if a situation is escalating, try not to resolve it – just introduce new words to redirect it.
  10. Give him a hug
    He’s a little boy trying to act big. He needs a hug.  A lot of hugs. He doesn’t know to ask for them – but he needs someone to wrap their arms around him and hold him tight for a few minutes so that he feels safe and loved.

What would you add to the manual?  Any techniques work for you and your active boy?

Escape Artist

Every parent of a toddler knows that toddlers take off running in an instant - but they usually stop by age 2.5. It's a lot more uncommon when your second grader repeatedly attempts to run off the school campus.  For a week, that's what my son started doing and because of the safety concerns and disruption caused, the school and our family needed to take swift action.

At first, we thought it was a plea for attention and normal (for him) limit pushing. As the Head of School and I brainstormed, she urged me to think about what might be driving the behavior because children behave for a reason - and as parents, we have to understand the reason in order to modify the behavior.

Attention?  Upon reflection, he got a lot of Daddy attention that week - although I was out of town.  

Running away - the action led me to wonder what he was trying to escape. He likes school and he's good at it. But he was definitely trying to escape.  By partnering with the school to provide us with information about what preceded the escape attempt, we realized that his escape attemps were actually a really good thing.

For the first 7 years of his life, when my son did something wrong, he immediately would try to deflect responsibility onto someone else. And now, he was running when he did something accidental or intentional and did not want to face the consequences.  This is an improvement - he's more conscious that something happened, he's responsible and there are consequences.

In a private conversation while driving, he and I talked about avoiding consequences. We talked about how we all make mistakes and sometimes do the wrong thing. We talked about how owning your mistakes helps us learn.  We talked about how avoiding the consequences only makes the consequences worse. And so I told my seven year old that when he does something wrong, he must stand and take his punishment "like a man". Perhaps I will tell my daughter to take it "like a woman" - but he got it.  He felt he could demonstrate bravery and leadership by facing the consequences of his choices.

Escape attempts since that talk - zero. He is telling himself to "take it like a man" and facing consequences.  And he's learning that he can handle the consequences.  


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