Is my preschooler overly impulsive? How can I tell?

Preschoolers are impulsive little beings. They run around, can’t wait their turn and interrupt constantly. How can you tell if your child is just being a typical kid or is more impulsive than is expected at her age?

Children develop self-control gradually during the preschool years and beyond. Some develop sooner than others. It’s not surprising for a 2-year-old to grab a toy away from a brother or sister. But by the time a child is 5, we would hope she’s able to take turns when playing games. A toddler might take off in the mall in a fit of independence. But by 5 she should remember to ask permission before she makes a dash for the ice cream truck.

Overly Impulsive or “Just Kids”?

It’s not easy to identify unusual impulsivity in kids, points out Dr. Matthew Cruger, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, given that all young children lack self-control. And different adults have different expectations. “Some adults have more tolerance than others for all sorts of behavior,” he says. “Sometimes we might dismiss impulsivity as just being function of being a kid.”

That said, notes Dr. Cruger, there are things to look for. “If your child is always on the go as if driven by a motor,” doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions, and seems more accident-prone than other kids in her age, she could be more than typically impulsive.

Degrees of Impulsivity

When a child acts impulsively, Dr. Cruger says it’s worth considering the specific issue at hand. For instance, he says, “When I tell my preschooler to put on her shoes and she says no and throws her shoes, that behavior is impulsive. But she might be doing it because last night we were really busy and I didn’t get to spend any playtime with her. She could be throwing her shoes because she’s seeking more contact from me. Or maybe she’s being defiant and testing the rules. Either way, I want to make sure that she picks up her shoes and puts them on. And I’m going to be very firm and unemotional in how I communicate that to her because I want her to comply with my rules, and I don’t want to get into a fight.”

However, Dr. Cruger acknowledges that some impulsive acts “like throwing knives and scissors” are “wildly more problematic,” and require a more forceful, less matter-of-fact response on the part of parents. If your child’s impulsivity is putting anyone in danger, reining in her behavior is a priority.

Dr. Michael Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says parents can assess their child’s impulsivity by comparing her to other kids her age. “There’s a certain amount of impulsivity that is expected for any preschooler, so parents should ask if their child’s impulsivity is striking compared to other kids her age. Is it causing problems at school? Are teachers commenting on it? Do you see it in other settings?”

Remember to compare your child to others very close to her age. Kids in who are on the younger end of the age range of a preschool class might not be as mature as the older kids, and are at risk of being misdiagnosed with ADHD.

A Checklist for Parents

Here are some signs that may indicate your preschooler’s impulsivity is part of a bigger problem.

  • Does she have trouble staying in her seat when other kids her age are able to?
  • Does she blurt things out and interrupt?
  • Does she grab for things when she should sit with quiet hands?
  • Does she run around and play much more noisily than other kids?
  • Does she have trouble waiting in line?
  • Is she overly aggressive toward other kids?
  • Is she excluded from playdates and birthday parties?
  • Do you feel like you need a leash to keep her from running into the street?

If any or all of these questions give you pause, you may want to start thinking about possible causes of impulsivity. They include:

  • ADHD: Kids with ADHD have an unusually difficult time controlling their behavior. They have trouble concentrating on a task, paying attention and sitting still. They want things and they want them now. They don’t stop and think about consequences—they just do.
  • Anxiety: Impulsive kids sometimes have unrecognized anxiety. A child who worries a lot may have a hard time coping with stressful situations. Her “fight or flight” instinct may take hold.
  • Trauma or neglect: Kids who’ve experienced trauma, neglect or chaos at home can be anxious and overemotional. That fuels impulsivity. They aren’t thinking when they act; they, too, are prone to the fight-or-flight defense mechanism.
  • Sensory processing issues: Some kids are oversenitive or undersensitive to input. A child who feels too much may be irritated by itchy or tight clothes, while one who doesn’t feel enough may seek stimulation by running around and crashing into things.
  • Autism: Because she may lack the communication skills to express her needs, a child on the autism spectrum may run and grab it. Rigid thinking, a hallmark of autism, may lead to a highly agitated state when things change unexpectedly. Nearly all autistic children and adults have sensory processing issues, which can lead to anxiety and impulsivity.

Diagnostic Tools Get at the Root of Impulsivity

If you’ve recognized signs of an underlying problem that might be causing your child to act out, it’s important to consult with a clinician experienced in diagnosing and treating children.

Whatever might be behind your child’s impulsivity, parenting comes into play. Dr. Cruger advises caregivers to “be warm, pay close attention, develop a good relationship, be clear with expectations, provide opportunities to correct for mistakes, and be firm and flexible.”

Understanding the source of your child’s impulsivity, and how to help her regulate it, will allow her to become a more in-control—and happier—child.

About the Author

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Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

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