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Where is my Child? Learning to put on the brakes


boy running away  A lot of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have a hard time controlling their impulses. I like to use this metaphor used by authors Quinn and Stern in their book Putting on the Brakes when I work with parents with impulsive children. I explain to the child that cars have brakes but sometimes they can be weak brakes. In order to make those brakes stronger, he must exercise his brakes and the parents need to help him do that.

When you are in a store and your child is running off in another direction, you might want to use verbal prompts like “Sam, you need to put on your brakes because you are running into people and knocking things down.” When I work with impulsive children, I like to give parents the tools that will help them teach their child to put on the brakes. Some tools that I use are:

1) Provide external structure by teaching them rules

If you are in a crowded mall, you can tell your child what the rules are for staying close to you and then remind them to practice putting on their brakes. For example you can say, “We are in a crowded place, so you must stay with me because I can lose track of you. Let’s practice putting on your brakes so that I am sure you understand what I am saying.”

2) Practice role playing desired behaviors.

Set up a scene at home where you are in a store shopping and your child runs off into another aisle. Discuss the appropriate behavior you want the child to use in a situation like this. Discuss what is acceptable and what is not. You can even let your child play the role of the adult to see how they might handle this situation.

3) State expectations for a situation so the child knows what is expected. 

It is important to set expectations and state them to your child so they know what it is expected of them. For example “Sam, we are going to the park so you can play with other kids. We are about to cross the street. I want you to stay close to me so we can cross the busy street together. Okay, now stay next to me for this part so we can cross the street.”

4) Plan in advance by setting the scene and laying out guidelines. 

Let your child know in advance where you will be going with them and lay out the rules and guidelines for them. For example “Sam we are going into the market in a couple of minutes. Remember the rules: Practice putting on your brakes and stay with me and the cart. If you do not than you will have to sit in the cart until I am finished food shopping. Now tell me the rule again before we go inside.”

5) Teach alternatives to a negative or inappropriate behavior.

When going food shopping, for example, you can keep your child involved and prevent boredom and negative behavior by asking him to get some of the items on your list. For example, “Sam, can you can you get a bag of celery for me please? Put them in the cart and then I will tell you what to get next.”

6) Use rewards when your child does an appropriate or successful behavior. There are two types of rewards:

  • Intangible rewards: Verbal praises and recognition: “Sam you did a good job following the rules. Great job!” Followed by hugs and kisses
  • Tangible rewards or extrinsic motivation: Use sparingly and with purpose. With this reward you are telling your child “Do this… and you will get this…” You can use sticker charts which will help you to keep track of your child’s positive behavior and reward him child with a treat after he has exhibited multiple episodes of the appropriate behavior.

Although it is tempting to lecture kids on their behavior, this is not an effective tool when the weakness is impulse control. Stay focused on the specific behavior, apply the interventions, and be consistent and nonjudgmental. Developing self control requires practice,maturation and patience (on the parents part).

As adults, you need to pay attention to how you act. Remember, that children look up to you and they may be mimicking irritating or impulsive behavior from you. If you are also struggling with self-control, think of a few keywords to help you keep yourself calm and plan your internal response to impulsive behavior. Don’t neglect your needs. Seek out support and help from a friend or professional if your behavior is impulsive or if practice does not help you to build a systematic approach.


Where is my Child? Learning to put on the brakes

Helen Nieves

Helen Nieves is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Attention Deficit Consultant Specialist. She teaches ADHD on line and is on the Advisory Board at The American Institute of Health Care Professionals. She also received advanced training in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and in Grief Counseling.

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APA Reference
Nieves, H. (2015). Where is my Child? Learning to put on the brakes. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Apr 2015
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