Natural Approaches to Help Kids with Impulsive BehaviorMay 13, 2020
Timothy Culbert, MD, IFMCP
Impulsivity, or acting without thinking, can be a real problem for kids (and yes, for adults too).
What does impulsivity look like?
When it happens once in a while, it can look like everyday kid behavior. When it happens a lot, though, it looks like what it actually is: Trouble with self-control. Impulsivity doesn’t appear the same way in every child. And the behaviors can change as kids get older.
When kids are impulsive, they might:
- Do silly or inappropriate things to get attention.
- Have trouble following rules consistently.
- Be aggressive toward other kids (hitting, kicking, or biting is common in young kids).
- Have trouble waiting their turn in games and conversation.
- Grab things from people or push in line.
- Overreact to frustration, disappointment, mistakes, and criticism.
- Want to have the last word and the first turn.
- Not understand how their words or behavior affect other people.
- Not understand the consequences of their actions.
- Take more risks with dating and sex, driving, and alcohol or drugs.
A recent study found that Canadian children (8 to 11 years old) were less likely to be impulsive if:
- They slept 9 to 11 hours each night and
- Limited their screen time to less than 2 hours per day.
Although the study is not conclusive, it suggests that sleep is essential and that too much time on video games or social media may affect a child's ability to self-regulate. Daily exercise was also a factor that was analyzed but did not appear to impact impulsive behaviors in this particular study.1 I find mindful exercise and mind-body practices to be particularly helpful.
Learn more about sleep, screen time, mind-body practices, and supplement use in the sections below.
How much sleep do kids need?
Kids need different amounts of sleep depending on their age. See the recommended ranges below.
Infants aged 4-12 months need 12-16 hours a day (including naps).
Children aged 1-2 years need 11-14 hours a day (including naps).
Children aged 3-5 years 10-13 hours a day (including naps).
Children aged 6-12 years need 9-12 hours a day.
Teens aged 13-18 years need 8-10 hours a day.
Kid(s) not getting enough? Find essential information in this article series to help support sleep: The Connection Between ADHD and Sleep. You'll find lots of resources in the article (e.g., melatonin use and chronobiological treatments).
How much screen time is appropriate for kids?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:
- For children older than 2 years of age, limit screen time to one hour of high-quality programming per day.
- Avoid screen time and digital media use in children younger than 24 months with the exception of video chatting.
Mind-body skills can help kids control their impulses
Here are some resources to consider:
- Yoga: Try Yoga Calm (www.yogacalm.org) and Yoga Kids (www.yogakids.com) and broader approaches (www.1000-petals.com)
- Mindfulness: Try “Sitting Still Like a Frog” by Eline Snel or “Mindful Games Activity Cards” by Susan Kaiser Greenland.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): See Kids activity book version like “What To Do When Your Temper Flares” by Dawn Huebner, PhD.
- Zones of Regulation: Used by many pediatric occupational therapists (see www.zonesofregulation.com for more info)
- The Zones of Regulation® is a framework and easy-to-use curriculum for teaching students strategies for emotional and sensory self-management. Rooted in CBT, The Zones approach uses four colors to help students identify how they are feeling in the moment given their emotions and level of alertness as well as guide them to strategies to support regulation. By understanding how to notice their body’s signals, detect triggers, read social context and consider how their behavior impact those around them, students learn improved emotional control, sensory regulation, self-awareness, and problem-solving abilities.
- Mightier.com: An interactive biofeedback game to train emotional regulation skills. The child wears a heart rate monitor while experiencing various challenges while playing a variety of specially designed video games. They learn to control their arousal level by lowering heart rate when they begin to feel frustrated. Kids can then transfer the skill into real life situations.
Supplements that may help with impulsive behavior
Be sure to check with your doctor before adding any supplements.
Please note: The supplements links go to our partner store, Fullscript (with an ongoing 10% discount for you + free shipping on orders over $50). You must have an account to view products and shop. Create your free account at: https://us.fullscript.com/welcome/nmh/signup. Learn more about Fullscript here.
1. Tyrosine: Building block for dopamine/norepinephrine.
2. GABA: Reduce nervous system excitability.
3. Magnesium: Calm the CNS and neuromuscular system.
4. Lithium Orotate: Soothe anger, mood swings, and aggression.
1. Guerrero, M. D., Barnes, J. D., Walsh, J. J., Chaput, J. P., Tremblay, M. S., & Goldfield, G. S. (2019). 24-Hour Movement Behaviors and Impulsivity. Pediatrics, e20190187.