The Importance of the Pause – Teaching Your Kids Impulse Control

Girl texting

By Heather Miller, MSW, Courier & Press, June 21, 2016 –

“I didn’t think about it.” As a Youth First Social Worker in a middle school, this is a statement I hear multiple times per week.

Impulse control and the ability to predict future consequences for present decisions are difficult concepts for the adolescent brain to process. Couple this with a fast-paced society that expects immediate feedback and gratification, and the challenge to think before acting becomes understandably difficult.

Students today are navigating life and relationships in a world primarily composed of red and green — stop and go — with no time for yellow, the pause.

Fifteen years ago, before the advent of social media, the pause allowed students to rethink their actions and tear up a hate-filled note they wrote to a peer the night before.

The pause often prevented the negative consequences that accompany intense emotions. Now, without the pause, students type a hate-filled text and press send. A text cannot be torn up, and the ramifications are often immediate.

The pause has been hijacked by social media, texting and email. Thus, when students tell me, “I didn’t think about it,” I know they did not think through the situation and possible consequences. Furthermore, many kids have not been taught how to do this.

The following tips will help teach kids how to pause before acting.

  • For younger children, use the visuals of a stoplight to guide the child in thinking through a real situation or made-up scenario. This will help instill the concept of thinking through possible consequences before acting. Begin at red, or stopping, to describe the situation; move to yellow, thinking through what may have been the reason for the situation as well as possible outcomes for different consequences; finally, move to green, choosing the action that will yield the best results.
  • To capture an adolescent’s attention, use famous athletes or movie stars to demonstrate how quickly lives can change by one action. Similar to the stoplight illustration, discuss the situation, the action taken, the consequences of the action, and how a different action may have created a different consequence.
  • If children are using texting, email and/or social media, discuss waiting a set amount of time before sending a message about a volatile issue. This is an important part of demonstrating the maturity needed to have a social media account or phone. Make it a nonnegotiable expectation.
  • For children of all ages, explain how the brain works and processes emotions as well as the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control. This gives kids an understanding of how their brains are equipped to deal with intense emotions. For more information please review the article, “Teaching Students: A Brain Owner’s Manual,” by Dr. Judy Willis.

If you have a child that would benefit from additional skills training in impulse control, please contact your school’s Youth First School Social Worker or a licensed mental health professional.