The Link between Impulsivity and Emotional Regulation

a beautiful chart
Many times parents or teachers ask, “How can I help this impulsive child self-regulate?”. In order to answer this question we first need to understand what “impulsivity” is and how it influences our ability to emotionally respond. Children with impulsivity have trouble regulating energy coming into their bodies and/or regulating the energy going out.

Children with trouble regulating sensations coming in are those kids who may react negatively when someone gets too close or respond negatively with loud noises. The response to sensations coming in is called a Flight, Fight or Freeze reaction (FFF). This means that the child’s nervous system misinterprets the sensations as dangerous and they respond by running away, freezing up or physical aggression. The child may need less of the input so that he can make sense of it. The way they feel in response to input influences their thoughts which in turn links to emotions and behaviors.

Children with trouble regulating the energy going out of their system are the kids who are described as: “on the go”, “into everything”, “never slow down”. In this case they may need more information to register in their system so that they can make sense of the input. These children also have thoughts based on how sensory input is perceived and registered that influence emotions and behaviors.

The part of the brain that controls the Flight, Fight or Freeze (FFF) reaction is in our lower brain called the Amygdala (the emotion control center of the brain). When this system is triggered and input is perceived to be dangerous, it causes physical changes that allow you to focus on the input and respond with a protective response (e.g. increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, tunnel vision, etc.). This part of the brain is also called the “reptilian brain” – because it is focused on survival responses. At the top of the brain is the prefrontal cortex; this is our most complex area of the brain and responsible for critical reasoning. The prefrontal cortex “shuts down” when the bottom of the brain is triggered. This means we lose the ability to think rationally and plan when we’re triggered in stress response.

a human brain

It is important to teach a child self-control, but FIRST, you have to get the child’s system calmed down or in an optimal learning zone so that you can THEN teach strategies and make brain changes. For example, if your child was walking alone in a dark alley and felt something brush his leg, he may react with a FFF reaction, and his “thinking” brain may shut down. He doesn’t have any way to effectively evaluate the situation.

Our job as parents or teachers is to give the child “tools in their tool kit” so they can go into that dark alley and understand what is actually happening. If you gave the child a flashlight, he would see that what he feels is only the wind moving a branch. He can use the flashlight to evaluate the situation and get a “plan of action”. That means calming the brain first so that the responses remain appropriate for the situation.

There are three ways to make changes in the brain or target the Amygdala so that our emotional responses are more regulated:

  • Mindfulness
  • Breathing
  • Movement

Functional MRI studies confirm that all three of these methods are shown to cause a decrease in the FFF reaction by targeting the Amygdala.

We use these methods to help a child increase emotional control and reduce impulsivity. By using a routine that includes breathing, movement, and mindfulness, you set can your brain into an optimal learning state and make yourself more available to learn “self-control” programs (e.g. the Zones of Regulation, Social Thinking Strategies, the Alert program). We utilize these kinds of programs, but they are ineffective if the child’s brain isn’t ready to receive input. That means that we need to work on the brain from the bottom up; in order to practice impulse control, we first designate time to get a child’s body in a learning zone through meditation, movement and breathing.

We recommend you start the day off with movement for the impulsive child. Don’t wait for your child to get frustrated, instead prime the system with calming and organizing input for the sensory sensitive child or alerting, high intensity and organizing movement for the high energy “on the go” child. Think of this as a preventive measure. Movement, breathing and meditation are not coping skills. Coping skills come after a child is calm and organized. We call this getting in the “just right zone” for learning.

Research supports that by using movement before presenting learning information the child’s ability to learn and retain information is maximized and also highly linked to memory. With over 50% of the brains neurons in the cerebellum (balance and movement center of the brain) it has been linked to focus attention and self-regulation. When we incorporate more balance and coordination and movement into our daily lives, we work to activate the cerebellum and this has been linked to improved learning and emotional control.

Get your child moving and get their brain calm and organized and then go to work on a skill.

And then move again and repeat the process. You will then have a brain body connection that allows your child to learn coping skills. Coping skills include teaching your child about “red” and “green” feelings and behaviors so that he or she can more easily respond to changes and react with positive emotions!

human feelings and behavior

For further information about discipline and emotional regulation you can also read more at:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *