11/26/2014 10:40 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

My Impulsive Son Throws Caution to the Wind

I have a 10-year-old son who acts like a toddler sometimes.The other day he saw his friend across the street and rushed to meet him without looking to see if cars were coming. At school he gets in trouble because he will grab the ball on the playground or take someone's dessert just because he wants it. When he is calm he knows what he should and shouldn't do but when he is excited, he acts without thinking. Why can't he control himself?

The area of the brain behind our forehead is called the prefrontal cortex or PFC. Among other things, the PFC helps us weigh the pros and cons of a decision, acting like brakes on a fast car to modulate our inhibitory response. When the PFC is doing its job, we are able to lengthen the gap between having a desire or impulse to do something, and actually doing that thing. The prefrontal cortex is not mature in a 10-year-old; in fact, it is still developing until around the age of 25.

With little children, it is obvious that we need to act as their prefrontal cortex because we know that they aren't capable of inhibiting their impulses. We keep them close when we're near the street and make sure not to leave sweets sitting around where they will have trouble resisting them.

It's much trickier with older children, because we an idea of what they should be able to do based on their chronological age. They should be able to resist the urge to steal a ball on the playground, or pause before running across the road. But children mature at different rates. While many 10-year-olds are quite capable of thinking before dashing into the street or grabbing a classmate's dessert, others -- like your son -- don't always have the capacity to think things through. If something is tempting enough, they act without considering the consequences.

My hope is that if you understand the role that children's brains play in governing their behavior and that they mature at different rates, you might be better able to accept who your son is -- rather than who you think he should be -- so that you can set appropriate expectations.

Try role-playing with your son to help him practice making better decisions. Rehearse what he should do if he sees a friend across the street: Wave to my friend but tell him I have to cross with the light. Look both ways for cars. Take my time to make sure it's safe to cross. You will have to repeat this a number of times, and even then, your son may not remember what he should do In the heat of the moment.

Make sure your child is eating healthy foods and getting enough sleep. Kids who are tired, hungry or loaded with sugar or processed foods tend to have a harder time keeping themselves in check than those who are well rested and nourished.

Finally, adjust your expectations. Keep a hand on your son's shoulder when you're by the street, and ask the lunchtime teacher to supervise him more closely to help him learn the rules.

It's very difficult to raise an impulsive child. But until we accept who our child is -- and isn't -- we cannot parent in the specific ways they need us to. Your boy will grow up, but for now, you'll need to match your expectations with his abilities to act with care, as you continue to help him gain greater mastery over those powerful impulses that prompt him to throw caution to the wind.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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