What is Inhibiting in Childhood?
Inhibiting in childhood is an executive function that gives the child the ability to think through their actions and stop themselves before making a poor decision.
In child development, children start to learn inhibition at an early age. Some children are better at this skill than others. We often find skills in inhibiting behavior go along with other executive functions like task switching or good working memory.
Children who are good at inhibiting their responses can pause and think about how their actions affect others. For example, “I know I want that toy, but the other kid will be sad if I just take it.” As a result of inhibition, they can hold onto a thought in class rather than blurting out the answer.
A shy child might inhibit a response too much. They may have anxiety around social performance or social interaction and may not act or speak out of fear.
Some children are the opposite and have trouble ‘inhibiting’ their actions. This difficulty is called disinhibition.They seem to forge ahead without ever stopping. They often make mistakes but then immediately feel remorse.
For example, they might hit other children and then feel sorry without being able to articulate what happened. Some children who lack inhibition may swear, run away, or scream. Many children with these difficulties blurt out in class.
Symptoms of Disinhibition in Childhood
- Acting without thinking: your child says, “I don’t know why I did that!” or “I couldn’t stop myself!”
- Looking like a motor drives them: your child seems to have a ‘go’ button but no ‘stop’ button
- Moving in a way that looks unorganized and aimless: you are concerned about your child’s ability to follow through
- Hitting someone and then feeling guilty afterward: your child acts impulsively and then feels terrible afterwards
- Making wrong choices, even though they know better: your child wants to make good choices, but it is as if they are unable to
- Getting in trouble for blurting out answers in class: your child is interrupting in class
Causes of Disinhibition in Childhood
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Combined Type or Hyperactive/Impulsive Type: Children who have ADHD, a developmental and neurological disorder, struggle with the executive function of being able to inhibit or ‘stop and think.’ Their brain gets ahead of them before they can think through their actions. You may often hear your child say, “I don’t know,” when you ask them why they did something.
Russel Barkley, arguably the nation’s foremost expert on ADHD suggests that inhibition is actually the hallmark feature of ADHD, rather than inattention or hyperactivity. He suggests that particularly as those with ADHD reach adulthood, there are rarely issues with hyperactivity. Instead, there may be a sense of restlessness that is associated more with anxiety. As we look the developmental course of those with ADHD it appears that the inability to properly inhibit behavioral responses. 
Sometimes, when these skills are harder to master, we may see an impact on mental health. If a young child has ADHD, it will be important to provide support so that other symptoms, like depression and anxiety, do not emerge due to challenges with focus and inhibition.
Other Neurological Disorders: your child’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for planning and decision-making, may be slow to mature, underdeveloped, or structurally different from other kids.
Learning Disorders: children with learning disabilities may have difficulty with executive functions and may have later development of skills like inhibition, working memory, organizing, and shifting focus
Trauma: Trauma can cause the part of the brain responsible for safety to over-function. For example, the problem-solving part of the brain may be ‘hijacked’ by the feeling part of the brain. The feeling brain is also called the ‘old brain’ or the ‘reptile brain.’ Sometimes, these different structures are referred to as ‘wizard brain’ and ‘lizard brain.’ If your child is struggling with inhibition, it could be that their lizard brain is taking over, and when your child is upset, it’s just impossible to think straight. It is essential to have compassion and support children who may still be maturing in this area.
What to Do about Disinhibition in Childhood
Children with poor inhibition tend to have behavior problems. They may get in trouble at home and at school. Setting up for success is important for these children.
- Have a reinforcement plan in place
- Provide rewards for stop-and-think behavior
- Seat this child close to the teacher
- Set up a signal for waiting
- Check-in often
- Find chances to offer praise
Healthy coping skills and the ability to think before acting are important for overall development. In the upper grades of school, into college, and in career endeavors, we cannot just say and do what we want. We have to be able to think through our decisions and act logically. Thus, treatment is often necessary when a child’s skills are not coming along adequately.
Activities to help your child stop and think
Watch this video together: Kids Want to Know Why Do We Lose Control of Our Emotions. After watching the video, talk with your child about what you learned. Help your child begin to recognize how to stop and think about their feelings before acting. Knowing this skill will take constant repetition and practice.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings first, then recognize the feelings in another: Your child will need help identifying their own feelings. Help your child recognize what they are feeling and thinking. They may not understand why they acted impulsively. Focus less on the why and more on the feelings.
Next, imagine how their action may have impacted someone else, how it left the other person feeling, and what they may be thinking and feeling.
Then, ask your child if you need to do something together to make the situation better.
Play Simon Says: Play Simon says with your child. Practice having your child listen to what Simon says before completing an action. For example, Simon says jump three times, and everyone jumps. Next, maybe say touch your nose. If your child touches their nose playfully, ask, ‘did you hear Simon says?’
Model stopping and thinking to your child: Talk through decisions with your child (with kid-appropriate disclosure) about how you stopped and thought through a decision or erred and corrected your action. This process can be hard to model if you struggle to stop and think for yourself. Seek help from a professional you trust.
When to Seek Help for Disinhibition in Childhood
You may need more help if your child’s problems are more severe, resulting in frequent tantrums, serious rule-breaking behaviors, or significant issues at school.
In that case, you may consider an evaluation or begin executive functioning coaching or behavioral treatment.
Professional Resources on Disinhibition in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- School Psychologist: to help with the learning problems, attention, or emotional issues at school that may be associated with disinhibition problems
- Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to treat symptoms of aggression and depression, for assessing behavior and social skills that may be associated with disinhibition problems. A testing psychologist can evaluate executive functions as well as cognition, emotions, and behavior and determine if a diagnosis is relevant
- Executive Functioning Coach or Tutor: this professional can offer weekly support and guidance to parents in implementing a support plan for a child with this difficulty
Similar Conditions to Disinhibition in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Flexibility: may have trouble changing from one activity to the next or one approach to another
- Rigid Behavior: may get ‘stuck’ on having own way or adherence to routines
- Behavior Problems: may have poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression
- Emotional Regulation: may cry or have meltdowns when plans are changed
References on Inhibition in Childhood
Russel Barkley (August, 2018). 30 Essential Ideas You Should Know About ADHD. 1B Inhibition, Impulsivity, and Emotion.
Book Resources for Disinhibition in Childhood
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.
Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.