Coping With Impulsivity by Donna Hammontree
Golfing last weekend, I once again hit a ball into the water on Hole 8. Because it was on the edge of the pond, I rashly struck the ball with my wedge. While the ball did come out (barely!), I had splashed muddy water all over my white shirt and blue golf skirt. I just as hastily wished I had used better judgment. My friend Carol asked me what I was thinking. My mind thought, "I want to beat her on this hole!" Adults frequently make reckless decisions out of impulse -- to run a red light, talk rudely to a store clerk, push to the head of a concert line, gossip about a friend or spend too much money on electronics. Even with us participating in such actions, we are astonished when a child makes similar decisions -- sticks a tongue out at a friend, pushes an opponent in a soccer game, sneaks candy from the teacher’s treasure chest, or changes the piano practice timer.
We say, “You know better than to do that! You need to stop and think about the consequences of your behavior ... what were you thinking?” I am gradually learning to use better judgment in my life. The other day when I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, I realized that I was feeling grumpy just at the prospect of not being fully assisted after waiting in line for hours. I took a breath. Then I decided to think of ways I could make the experience more pleasant. I played with my cell phone until it started dying and then I read several magazines. I closed my eyes and pictured myself speaking so politely to the DMV clerk that she would love to help me, and I decided to be extra understanding if she could not. Believe it or not, I was able to implement my plan. I maintained my composure and felt in control of my own actions, which made me happy. I chose my actions rather than being pulled by them. Upon reaching home I was so delighted with myself that I celebrated with a leisurely bike ride. But is this a skill that a child can learn? I can picture a child with a decision to make, who we'll call Billy. He lied about doing his homework last night and is in a foul mood when he walks into his fourth grade class. He recognizes that he feels irritable and worried. So he stops and thinks of the consequences of the actions running through his head. “If I trip Mark because he has his homework, Mark might fall and bust his lip. He could get hurt, and also leave me with no one to play with during recess. Plus, I'd be in more trouble than ever.” Billy closes his eyes, breathes, and calms his mind with his favorite memory of wave-jumping at the beach last summer. He regains his calm and then thinks of better ways he can handle himself. He approaches Ms. Walker, confesses his homework sin, and asks if he can complete his work during recess. While this scenario is improbable (just like the YouTube video “Meet Andrew” on the Association of Play Therapy website), it is possible if adults in Billy’s life are working with him in fun and positive ways to teach him new skills. If caregivers and teachers alike can model ‘coping with impulsivity’ and provide incentives for good decision-making. School counselors, psychotherapists and parents can often use their influence to teach specific coping strategies, as well as demonstrate those strategies by example. Stop, Relax and Think by Childswork/Childsplay is a board game that I use regularly along with other techniques to help boys and girls alike learn to identify their feelings, stop and think about consequences, find new ways to clear their minds, and identify an alternative action before acting impulsively. For children with a shorter attention span, I use the dice with “8” to make the game go a little faster. For others, the 2 dice together add interest. As I indicated earlier, I play the board game Stop, Relax and Think quite often, and I too am learning how to manage my impulsivity -- so it’s even helpful for adults to play. I can hardly wait to play a round of golf with Carol again even though she always wins. When she makes a good shot I will say, “Good shot, Carol!” If she hits her ball near the edge of the woods, I could say “Tough shot, but I think you can do it” ... or, accidentally kick it out of bounds -- but then I would need to play another round of Stop, Relax and Think. Visit Donna Hammontree for services in Savannah
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