Developing impulse control in preschoolers: Here's what to know

Not acting on a desire, or impulse, immediately is impulse control, or "delayed gratification."
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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

Not acting on a desire, or impulse, immediately is impulse control. It can also be called self-control or delayed gratification. Research on delayed gratification has shown it to be associated with higher achievements in adult life, including higher SAT scores, achieving a higher level of education, and less substance abuse. Having impulse control also helps children reach goals, like getting better grades, learning to play an instrument, or even perfecting a free throw. In later years this can mean saving up money to buy a house, car, or apartment, or staying late at work to try for a promotion.

At ages 3 and 4, your child may not seem to show much impulse control. This can be seen when your child takes a toy away from another child or doesn’t wait his turn. This doesn’t mean your child won’t succeed later in life. In fact, it’s quite normal at this age. But you can still help your child learn even at this early age.

Play games with your child that help develop impulse control. Games like Follow the Leader, Freeze Dance, and Simon Says are great ways to practice self-control with your child in a fun way. Another example is the game Red Light Green Light, where children are only allowed to run or move when the leader has said “green light.” These games all require some self-control, don’t cost anything to play, and can be done at any time.

Work on waiting with your child. Try not to hand them an electronic device while waiting at the doctor’s office, grocery store, or while picking up siblings from school. Talk about their day, or anything else, while you wait. Play I Spy or ask her to find things around her. Simply practicing waiting without being entertained can go a long way in developing your child’s impulse control.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Judy Willis, Neurologist, Teacher, Author, International Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara; and Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids.