Poor Impulse Control

At last night’s dinner, Reeve’s grandfather asked him to stop pouring the salt from the shaker onto the kitchen table. In spite of repeated requests from a man he loves and admires, Reeve couldn’t stop. His impulses over took and he poured the salt out once again. As a result, Reeve suffered what is, for 3-year-old grave consequences: He was denied his beloved cookies for dessert.

Posted on | Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD | Comments ()

At last night’s dinner, Reeve’s grandfather asked him to stop pouring the salt from the shaker onto the kitchen table. In spite of repeated requests from a man he loves and admires, Reeve couldn’t stop. His impulses over took and he poured the salt out once again. As a result, Reeve suffered what is, for 3-year-old grave consequences: He was denied his beloved cookies for dessert.

Typically, we see poor impulse control in young children and adolescents. During this period, children are dealing with strong emotions they haven’t yet learned to properly manage. Frequently, however, we see this behavior in adults.

In my work in the field of addictions, I see people of all ages suffering from poor impulse control each and every day. These otherwise perfectly rational and responsible people can’t resist the urge to eat that piece of cake because they are angry, sad or lonely; they can't resist smoking that cigarette because they feel stressed; or taking a drink because they feel socially insecure. In the short run, these self-defeating actions seem like a great idea.In the long run, however, they cause more harm than good.

So I hear you asking, “Dr. Hokemeyer, what is the solution?” In my experience, the solution begins with the following 2 steps:

Step 1: Identify the Behavior

  • Make a list of your self-defeating reactions. Whatever they are (eating, drinking, smoking, yelling at another person) write them down.
  • Take the list and post it somewhere you will see it daily (the bathroom mirror is a great place).
  • Share this list with another person you trust. Negative behaviors thrive in isolation. Our secrets keep us sick.
  • By identifying the impulsive behaviors that get you into trouble and sharing them with another human being you can begin developing a consciousness that will enable you to avoid being controlled and defeated by your emotions.

Step 2: Develop Healthy Coping Skills

  • Through the awareness you developed in step 1, you can now experiment with healthy coping skills that serve instead of defeat you.
  • Some of these skills may include: counting from 1 to 10  (my personal favorite), walking away from a troubling situation or reaching out to a friend for comfort and support.
  • What’s important to remember is that, just like each individual has different triggers, each of us will have different coping skills that work for us in different ways. Give yourself room to experiment and don’t give up if you don’t immediately succeed. Try and try again.

Hopefully the next time Reeve is tempted to do engage in an action that will lead to negative consequences he will pause and think about his behavior. In this pause he will find the space to avoid taking a self-defeating action and find himself with a fist (and mouth) full of cookies!

Remember that rewards exist for any age. Make the effort to get out of your own way and enjoy them!

Blog written by Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD
Paul Hokemeyer is a licensed attorney, researcher and Marriage and Family Therapist who works with individuals, couples and...