Parenting kids who have low self-control

From Nine To Noon, 11:50 am on 21 February 2019

The struggles of children who haven't yet developed executive skills – and therefore are prone to being impulsive, chaotic, forgetful and inattentive – can exhaust and exasperate parents and lead to dysfunction in a family.

But parenting consultant Joseph Driessen tells Kathryn Ryan that people need to identify this lack for what it is – a kind of developmental disability that needs some special attention.

Studio portrait of a little girl yelling.

Photo: 123RF

Research shows that about 3 to 5 percent of children – possibly more – are quite delayed in the development of neurological circuits involved in the control of impulse, awareness and time and self-management, Driessen says.

"Some parents ... are really quite surprised at their children who seem to be immature, chaotic, disorganised, forgetful and a little bit hyperactive. They miss deadlines, they can't do their schoolwork, they procrastinate [about] everything and it just drives everybody a little bit mad with their impulsivity and you really think 'why haven't they grown up?"

"The immature response of the average parent is to become frustrated and exasperated and put pressure on the child and don't seem to understand why the child may get worse."

"Most children can control their impulse for the now. You know, 'I'll stop, I'll wait, I won't do it'.

"But some children want to do it because the impulse control isn't working very well. They just feel overwhelmed – 'I gotta do this now'.

"The second thing which they lack is an awareness of time. They lose themselves in the moment. They forget what they were thinking or planning to do 10 minutes ago. And actually, the future recedes as well and they forget that actually if they don't do this now, the future isn't going to be good. They become completely overwhelmed with 'now' and lose a sense of time. And that is a very debilitating delay of an executive skill.

"The third thing that these children lack is the ability to self-talk and self-manage ... babies don't, but toddlers start talking to themselves, saying 'I gotta be good for mum,' I gotta do this, I gotta be on time, I gotta get my shoes ready'.

"That becomes internalised and many children ... between five and ten do a lot of self talk to manage themselves ... but it's all internal. And then adults, we often cognitively think that."

Finally, these children also lack an ability to return to their original plan, Driessen says.

"This lack of impulse control, this lack of knowing where you are on an imaginary timeline, this lack of foresight and hindsight, this lack of self-talk and this lack of return to where I was, this creates a child who is very impulsive, reacting to the now and unable to plan their day and their lives."

Little boy on a swing in the park.

Photo: 123RF

However, there are certain situations where these traits could be positive – such as if you're a salesperson required to act on the spot, Driessen says.

"Some classical salespeople are very productive, but their paperwork is hopeless because they can't concentrate on that."

In the past, hunter-gatherers made good use of these tendencies.

"Some research shows that hyperactive and impulsive, in-the-moment hunters are more successful persevering and they are more sort of 'on the go' all the time.

"But of course in a modern environment for many children this is a significant liability and research shows that some children, probably 60 percent do not outgrow this.

"They carry on the habits and the dysfunctional behaviour into adulthood and some adults find it very hard to plan and they are chaotic and their school career and work career aren't as good what they should have been.

"The second thing is many of these children have very poor social skills as well because they are hyper-impulsive. They don't understand a social skill is very much [for] the past, now and the future. Often these parents are quite shocked and embarrassed that many children don't actually want to spend time with their child.

"So that's the second red flag. The first red flag is the parent thinks the child is way beyond the norm. The second red flag is 'my child is not very popular because of their unskilled behaviour."

The third red flag is chaos and complaints following a child at school, in sports, during homework and when it's time for chores.

"The research shows most parents actually know 'we've got a really difficult child', but what happens if they don't seek help or they don't listen to a talk like this or they don't read the book, they just become exasperated and they become woven into a dysfunctional family and they think 'well, this is life'.

"But it isn't. It's a child with a disability."

You can find all of Nine to Noon's parenting interviews here.

More of Joseph Driessen on RNZ:

  • How to tame disobedient children and teach social responsibility - Joseph Driessen
  • Fostering independence and social responsibility in children
  • The top ten parenting faults – and some advice
  • Tips for parenting a disobedient child
  • An angry child needs you to be calm