How to Teach a Teen to Have Impulse Control

Teens who lack the capacity for restraining impulsive actions and speech acts frequently alienate their peers and adults alike. Impulse control begins in infancy, with substantial gains usually acquired by the time a child begins school. Psychoanalysts, such as Peter Fonagy, have argued cogently that impulse control is related to "affect regulation"—the ability to self-modulate fluctuations in emotional states and restrain behavior accordingly 1. Teens with deficits in impulse control require a good deal of patient, warm-hearted and clear-headed guidance; in effect, they need to learn nothing less than the art of making friendships.

Learning the Art of Staying Calm

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott believed that adults concerned with the care and education of adolescents would inevitably encounter a period of "acting out" on their part at some point. He recommended responding kindly but resiliently to the challenges, without retaliating or collapsing. His advice remains relevant: Betraying anger and becoming vindictive toward an acting-out, impulsive teenager will pour petroleum on the flames, while disintegrating into tearful pleas for better behavior or guilt-ridden "mea culpas" ("it's all my fault you're like this") will leave the teen feeling he/she has caused irreparable damage. Avoid both reactions at all costs.

Begin with observation. Parents can note in a journal when, where and around whom impulsive outbursts occur. Patterns sometimes only become visible in a diary—Does your teen grow more impulsive or aggressive in the company of a sibling or of the other parent, or in social situations? Focus on wherever impulsivity increases. Teachers may do something similar by noting classroom behavior (and if possible schoolyard behavior). Does behavior differ between the more structured setting of the classroom and the less supervised schoolyard? Note observations for about 1 week to get a good baseline.

Frequently, teens with poor impulse control relate more easily on a one-to-one basis, especially with adults, an indicator that anxiety may lie behind their problematic conduct in social situations (especially relatively unstructured ones). "Acting out" really means ridding the mind and body of anxieties through increased physical activity, including apparent aggression, rather than holding on to them and trying to learn how to understand and manage them better. Helping teens to learn the art of affect regulation involves helping them to hold on to uncomfortable anxieties rather than flinging them away.

Begin with a simple line drawing of a human outline (not unlike the ones you find on bathroom doors). In a calm, quiet setting, explain to the young person that you will be helping him understand why his attempts at friendships keep going wrong and why adults get annoyed with him so often. He is not "bad"; his body just reacts faster than his mind when he feels awkward. Here, we will slow everything right down and give his mind a chance to catch up and get ahead. Where does he notice the tension appearing first in his body, if he really tries to remember? Invite him to mark on the line drawing where the early sensations of anxiety begin.

Even though a teen may feel that anger, for example, just "happens," remind the teen you are doing a slow motion action replay here. Where does it start? What happens next? The teen may notice for the first time that his/her heart starts to pound, breathing gets more rapid, palms get sweaty—there is always a build-up to an eruption. Record them on the chart in sequence, using colors to represent degrees of danger. This person is already starting to learn how to prevent outbursts. Practice "time-out" strategies, namely, ways of leaving the stressful situation for a few minutes at an an early stage to calm down.


Persevere and never express disappointment. Impulsive teens need a lot of encouragement and will inevitably experience setbacks until they gain the rudiments of affect regulation. Your warmth and calmness will help by modeling these characteristics for the teens to emulate.

Try to hold regular meetings like this in a soothing, calm setting, and reassure your young persons that you will keep on being there until they get the hang of it.


As with all work with adolescents, never throw in the towel, even if your teen "forgets" about meeting with you. In this kind of therapeutic work, just accept a degree of unreliability from this individual. Struggling teens easily feel rejected and may need to test your commitment to them—that is what "forgetting" usually means. Good-heartedly, just arrange the next meeting and look forward to seeing him/her next time—down-spirited teens often need adults to hold all the hope and faith that they can improve for extended periods.