What is Impulsivity in Childhood?
Impulsivity in childhood is the inability to hold back on taking specific actions, even in the face of danger or negative consequences.
Impulse control is the brain’s stop sign. An impulsive child is having trouble thinking before acting.
“Impulsive children see something and move toward it; they hear something and go for it.”
Top 10 Signs Your Child Has Impulsivity Issues
1. You are always saying, WAIT! As a parent, you may find yourself constantly saying, “No…wait…no,” “Stop!” or “Slow down!”
2. Bull in a china shop: Children who impulsively move about tend to hurt themselves or others accidentally. They break things all the time and bump into people constantly. They seem like the proverbial ‘bull in a china shop.’
3. Tiring for caregivers: You may feel exhausted after an hour with an impulsive kiddo. They are constantly moving and require intense supervision to be safe.
4. Child has no stoplight: It may seem like all your child can see are green lights. Any time something interesting appears, it is instantly met with action.
5. In trouble at school: Often, these children are found out of their seats when they shouldn’t be, rushing through homework, and having difficulties waiting in line.
6. Challenges with peers: These impulsive behaviors often lead to getting into other people’s space, annoying others, and not stopping to read social cues.
7. Breaking things: Impulsive behavior may be observed when your child approaches a carefully constructed train set, and without a moment’s thought, he breaks the track and crashes all the trains.
8. Playing rough: Impulsive children often play too intensely and wildly, accidentally running over a friend’s foot with a bicycle tire or mowing down a friend’s beautifully built block tower. Because it was a complete accident, they often feel remorseful if someone is hurt.
9. Tough time connecting: These children may have trouble making friends because they can’t seem to slow down enough to see what the other kids want to do or share in a conversation.
10. Legal trouble: Many impulsive kids find themselves in challenging legal situations that they brought on themselves, but without any true motive or forethought.
“He’s just being a boy” and other myths about impulsive behavior
When your child starts acting impulsively, well-meaning friends and family may tell you that this behavior is normal. They may say, “he’s just being a boy” or “he’ll grow out of it.”
Unfortunately, although that may be true, impulsive behavior can get your developing child into a lot of trouble. With the addition of cell phones and social media, impulsive children are at an increased risk.
Unless there is a zombie apocalypse, we see no signs that social media and cell phones will stop being a part of our lives. The incidence of cyber-bullying, sexting, and cybercrimes among teenagers is at an explosive level.
Your impulsive child will need to learn how to navigate these platforms without doing something regrettable. If this advice is a day late for your family, please know that help is available, and there are ways to teach your child to manage impulses and make better decisions.
Symptoms to Be Concerned About in Impulsive Children
- Failing to stop and think: Acting now and thinking later
- Accidently breaks things or hurts people: Making mistakes and feeling remorse afterward
- Acts as if driven by a motor: Moving constantly and unable to stop
- Failing to reflect: Rarely thinking about their actions or the consequences
- Unsafe in public: Running away from you at the grocery store or in a parking lot
- Taking frequent risks: Seeming to have no concern for safety
- Bothering others: Acting hyper and intrusive, even when another child has had enough
- Overly physical with others: Liking to hug and roughhouse, even with kids who do not appear to be having fun
- Teenagers taking unsafe risks: older kids and teenagers who are impulsive may take uncalculated risks, resulting in trouble with the school or the law. It is important to understand that there are treatments for impulsive kids that could result in improved behavior and better outcomes
Causes of Impulsivity in Children
Clinically, impulsivity can be roughly defined as action without forethought. More specifically, impulsivity is the behavioral manifestation of an individual’s inability to inhibit the prepotent response. In plain English, this description means that your child has trouble stopping themselves from what they automatically want to do.
Brain wiring & immaturity
The root cause of impulsivity is generally different brain wiring. Your child’s judgment and reason aren’t fully mature until about 23 years old. On top of that, many children simply have naturally less developed impulse control and will need help learning to manage their behavior and decision-making.
Here’s a sample situation. A child sees the cookie on the table and knows full well that mom has told him to wait until after dinner. The child instantly grabs the cookie and devours it, much to his own surprise. When mom enters the room, wagging her finger and asking, “Why did you do that,” the child has no idea.
Impulsive behaviors could be related to attention challenges and a genuine lack of impulse control. It may seem like the child or teenager has no mental brakes. If a child cannot slow down, stop and think before acting, then bad decisions may result.
These symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity may be related to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If you are wondering about this, most primary care doctors and pediatricians can diagnose this disorder and provide recommendations and referrals for treatment.
Some impulsive behaviors have an emotional origin. That is, your child may be somewhat out of control in terms of managing their feelings, leading to regrettable behavior.
Impulsivity in the context of irritable mood or frequent mood swings might indicate a Mood Disorder. Your child’s tendency to be grouchy, angry, or moody may lead to erratic and unpredictable behavior.
The underlying problem here could also be related to social awareness, social perspective-taking, or social understanding, which are challenges commonly associated with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Failing to read other children’s cues effectively can lead to social mistakes. Children with ASD may have an impaired ability to read social space or refrain from giving a bear hug to a shy classmate. Thus, your child’s behaviors may seem impulsive when they are actually lacking social savvy.
Impulsive children may act in a certain way without understanding the ramifications of their actions. For example, the child may push a child out of their way to get to the front of the line at the playground.
What To Do About Impulsive Behaviors
Impulsive behavior can cause a lot of issues for your child and family. Here are some tips for parents in managing impulsive behavior.
Keep in mind that some impulsive children are very hard to parent. Even if you are doing all of these things right, your child may not show an immediate improvement in behavior.
At home, it will be important to teach your young child to delay gratification. Reward your child for waiting for desired items. One way to teach this is to match your child’s savings account and allow them to buy bigger items with the money they have saved.
For example, some parents require their younger children to save money towards a car that they agree to match when the child reaches driving age and has enough money saved. This strategy is an excellent way to teach your child delayed gratification.
The simple ‘ STOP AND THINK ‘ prompt is another way to teach your child to manage impulses. When your child approaches a risky situation, remind them to ‘STOP AND THINK.’ If the child does stop, instantly provide praise or a reward. Explicitly acknowledge when your child chooses to think before acting.
When to Seek Help For Impulsivity In Childhood
In very young children, impulsivity is potentially okay so long as it does not result in frequent aggression toward peers at daycare or preschool. If there are significant episodes of aggressive behavior, consider ABA Therapy. Your child’s doctor may be able to make a referral for ABA or other therapies.
If your child is in elementary school, and impulse control is an issue, you will likely be getting frequent calls from the teacher or principal. It may be that your child cannot complete schoolwork or is getting into frequent conflict with peers. In that case, talk to the school counselor and your child’s doctor. ADHD may be the underlying issue. The doctor can help with a diagnosis, and the counselor can provide support or interventions.
By high school, impulsivity can be a significant issue if your child gets into disciplinary problems. It may be that your child is doing inappropriate things while interacting with peers or posting on social media. The time for intervention is NOW. Reach out to your child’s school counselor for help at school. Additionally, consider a psychological evaluation for ADHD and related issues. It may be that a 504 Plan or another intervention program can help your child if a diagnosis is discovered.
If your child is really struggling, as described above, it can be a good idea to seek the help of a professional. Untreated impulsivity can be a risk factor for legal issues or disciplinary problems at school. With the proper support in place, your child can learn the positive behaviors necessary to follow the rules, manage impulses, and participate in the classroom successfully.
Further Resources on Impulsivity
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise at different ages and to help with social skills training, planning and organization
- ABA therapist: to treat behavior; to conduct an analytical Functional Analysis of the function of the behavior that can help guide treatment
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to examine impulsive symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context
- Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for inattention, impulsivity; stimulant medication for ADHD is effective in a high percentage of children with focus and impulsivity challenges
Similar Conditions to Impulsivity
- Attention challenges: being impulsive can often be related to challenges with attention
- Emotion regulation or mood swings: being impulsive can be related to underlying mood swings, breaking rules might be caused by irritable mood; feelings of sadness and depression
- Social problems: being impulsive can be related to trouble reading social cues and knowing when to stop; this behavior can look impulsive
- Non-compliance: being impulsive can be related to poor behavior choices. The child may think, “if I hit or push, then I get my toy back.”
Book Resources on Impulsivity in Childhood
Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.
Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.
Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Cook, Julia (2012). Personal space camp.
Esham, Barbara (2015). Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the wiggle fidgets. (New edition) (Adventures of everyday geniuses.)
Papolos, Demitri & Papolos, Janice (2002). The Bipolar Child: The definitive and reassuring guide to childhood’s most understood disorder.
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