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Understanding impulsivity in kids

By Gail Belsky

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How many times have you seen kids act without thinking? Probably a lot. Most kids have moments when they’re impulsive and say or do things before they can stop themselves. They might blurt out something inappropriate or run into the street after a ball without looking.

When it happens once in a while, it can look like everyday kid behavior. When it happens a lot, though, a child may be having trouble with self-control .

Sometimes, it’s a matter of maturity. Not all kids develop at the same rate, and some just take longer than others to gain the ability to stop and think before acting.

But some kids really are unable to put on the “mental brakes.” They may often interrupt people, grab things, and take physical risks. For those kids, there may be something else causing the impulsivity. 

Impulsive behavior often makes kids seem younger than they are. An 8-year-old might have the self-control more expected from a 5-year-old, for example. You might see behaviors that you thought would have ended long ago.

Struggling with impulsivity or any other behavior challenge can impact how kids feel about themselves. When kids have more control over their actions, they feel more “mature” and have more positive self-esteem.

Dive deeper

Examples of impulsive behavior in kids

Impulsivity doesn’t appear the same way for every kid and may change as kids get older. Kids and teens with impulsivity might:

  • Do silly things to get attention

  • Have trouble following rules 

  • Be aggressive toward other kids 

  • Overreact to frustration, disappointment, mistakes, and criticism

  • Want to have the first turn and the last word

  • Not understand how their words or behavior affect other people

  • Not understand the consequences of their actions

  • Take more risks with dating and sex, driving, and alcohol or drugs

Many of these behaviors are signs of ADHD. Learn more about ADHD symptoms at different ages.

When ADHD is the cause of impulsivity

One of the most common causes of frequent impulsive behavior is ADHD. ADHD makes it hard to contain intense feelings, like anger. Researchers don’t know what causes ADHD and its symptoms. But many kids and adults have ADHD, and it often runs in families. 

Research has shown that some parts of the brain take longer to mature in people with ADHD. Those parts of the brain help kids use executive functioning skills , which include impulse control. This may explain why some people with ADHD are more impulsive than people who don’t have ADHD.

Learn more about ADHD .

Other causes of impulsivity

It’s easy to make assumptions about what’s behind a child’s impulsive behavior. For instance, if a child makes a rude remark, people might think the remark was intentionally insulting. But in a lot of cases, kids don’t mean to be rude or aggressive. 

In addition to ADHD, there are also mental health issues, like phobias and  mood disorders, that can lead to impulsive behaviors in kids.

Lack of sleep can also cause impulsive behavior, as can stress and frustration. When kids are struggling with something in school or in everyday life, they may act out. Young kids don’t always have the words to say what they’re feeling.

Download an observation log to keep track of what you’re seeing.

Next steps

If you’re not sure why kids act impulsively, it can help to take notes on what you’re seeing. Tracking behaviors can help you discover patterns over time and find why kids might be struggling.

If you notice a long-term pattern, talk to someone about it. Teachers and health care providers can be helpful sources of information and advice. They may have suggestions about how to help.

Learn what to say when kids are frustrated and what to ask teachers about a child’s self-control .

Related topics

Managing emotions Managing emotions Root causes Root causes Signs and symptoms Signs and symptoms

Did you know?

Tantrums and meltdowns are not the same thing. A meltdown usually isn’t something people can control.

More on: Managing emotions

Kids with ADHD are much more likely to have a learning disability than kids who don’t have ADHD. They’re also more likely to have anxiety or depression.

More on: Root causes

When people avoid reading or don’t follow directions, it might look like they’re just being “lazy” or “defiant.” But behaviors like these can actually be signs of learning and thinking differences.

More on: Signs and symptoms

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