Why children have a hard time controlling what comes out of their mouths — and how to help them develop a filter to use the old adage, "think before you speak."
Kids say the darnedest things. Some of their quips are adorable. Others are so embarrassing (“Mom, why is that woman so fat?”), their parents search for the nearest hole to crawl into. When kids constantly speak out at inappropriate moments (in church, at school), their words — even when meant innocently — can get them into big trouble.
Children develop the ability to control what they say — called “response inhibition” — as they pick up language and other skills throughout childhood. Their inhibition skills continue to evolve as they get older, but not every child develops a working filter at the same pace. “Along the way, some kids seem to have delays in their development of this executive skill, and they constantly fail to stop and think before they act,” says Monte Davenport, PhD, a licensed professional counselor and developmental specialist in Southlake, Texas.
Problems with self-control and response inhibition can stem from developmental delays in the brain’s frontal lobe. “This part of the brain is supposed to slow down our immediate responses and allow us time to think and make reasonable decisions before acting,” Davenport says.
Kids with slowed development in this part of the brain are more likely to blurt out the answers in class without raising their hand, and say unintentionally hurtful things to other children. Their lack of verbal self-control can lead to lost friendships and discipline problems in school. During the teen years, impulsivity can lead to more serious issues, like drug and alcohol abuse or pregnancy.
Developing your child’s "think before you speak" filter
To help your child learn to think before he speaks, you need to understand that his impulsivity is a developmental issue. He’s not trying to be disobedient — he simply can’t control his words. Don’t punish your child — work with him in positive ways to change the behavior, Davenport suggests.
“Developing self-awareness is an important step in developing self-control. It can be helpful for parents to help their child identify the situations that cause the child to be impulsive.” For example, does your child often talk out when she’s tired or bored? Does she react poorly to transitions — such as getting ready for school in the morning? Is she only impulsive at school, or in other situations, too? Could speaking out be an attempt to get attention from teachers or friends?
Once you’ve identified the triggers, come up with a plan to help your child stop and think before speaking in those situations. “For example, if a child has trouble with transitions, it may be helpful to prepare her for upcoming changes in advance: telling your young child that you’ll both be leaving the park to go home in 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute can help her start to make smoother transitions,” Davenport says.
Another way to encourage your child to stop and think is by having her ask herself two questions before she opens her mouth: “Is this going to hurt someone else?” and “Is this going to hurt me?” “By taking these steps, the child has inhibited her response and can then make a better choice,” says Davenport. Rehearse different strategies and situations at home until your child gets better at controlling her impulses.
Teachers can help, too — for example, reinforcing good self control by calling on your child when he raises his hand, and praising him when he thinks before speaking. Davenport suggests using a communication tool called a daily report card. First, you and the teacher pick three to five target behaviors you’d like to change at school. Once your child has practiced these skills, the teacher will report both positive and negative behaviors to you on the DRC, so you can keep track of your child’s progress and reinforce those same behaviors at home.
When you need more help
If you’ve tried these techniques and your child is still speaking out inappropriately, enlist the help of a mental health professional. Look for someone with expertise dealing in executive function development — someone who can develop a “clear, realistic, and collaborative plan” to help your child improve her impulse control, Davenport says.
Be patient. Developing good impulse control can take a lot of time and practice, but with the right approach and help from a developmental specialist, your child’s outbursts should become fewer and far less frequent.
February 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN