Parenting a child who jumps off the top of the jungle gym or flies into a fury can be tough and tiring. But if he just can’t stop himself, he may have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or another condition. Learn more about what causes impulsive behavior and how you can help.
What You Might Be Seeing
Kids who have issues with impulsivity have trouble stopping to think before they act. They may blurt things out, interrupt other people, have trouble waiting their turn or do unsafe things. Impulsive behavior doesn’t look the same in every child. And the symptoms can change as kids get older. Here are some things you might be noticing in your child:
- Does silly or inappropriate things to get other people’s attention
- Has trouble following rules consistently
- Is aggressive toward other children (hitting, kicking or biting is common in young kids)
- Has trouble waiting for his turn in games and conversation
- Grabs things from people or pushes in line
- Overreacts to frustration, disappointment, mistakes and criticism
- Wants to have the last word and the first turn
- Doesn’t understand how his words or behavior affect other people
- Doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions
What Can Cause Impulsive Behavior
The most likely cause of impulsive behavior is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is the most common brain-based condition in childhood. It affects 8 to 10 percent of all kids between 3 and 17. Boys are about three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls.
Some kids with ADHD act and speak without thinking because their brains works differently than those of kids who don’t have it. The part of the brain that controls impulses develops more slowly than usual. That’s why kids with ADHD often seem less mature than their peers.
While some children's symptoms may lessen as they get older, that isn't the case for most kids. There are strategies you can use at home and supports that can be used at school to help your child control his impulses.
There are other conditions that have impulsivity as a symptom. And kids can also have more than one condition. Here are some learning issues that cause impulsive behavior in children:
- Language or communication disorders or delays in language development: Kids with difficulties communicating may act impulsively or seem impulsive. They may not understand directions so they don’t wait for instructions to be given and just act instead. Or they may act out because they’re frustrated that others can’t understand them. Some kids may not understand how conversation works, so they may not know when to stop talking or how to stay on topic.
- Executive functioning issues: Executive functions are a group of mental skills that help us organize and act on information. One of these skills is impulse control. If your child is weak in this area, he may have a hard time controlling how he behaves. Executive “dysfunction” isn’t usually considered its own disorder. But it often occurs with learning and attention issues.
Sorting out why your child has trouble with impulse control can take a little detective work. Keeping track of his symptoms and behavior is a good first step. Your notes will be helpful when you talk to professionals about your concerns.
Here are some other steps you can take to find out what’s causing your child’s impulsive behavior:
- Talk with your child’s teacher. This is a great place to start gathering information. You know what you’re seeing at home. But the teacher can tell you what’s been happening at school. That information can be helpful if you pursue a diagnosis and need to talk to other professionals. Even if you don’t, the teacher may be able to try different strategies to help your child in the classroom.
- Talk with your child’s doctor. Take your journal or notes so you can discuss what you’ve been seeing. The doctor will likely want to rule out medical causes for your child’s impulsivity. This may include testing for things like ADHD and communication disorders. The doctor may also refer you to a specialist, such as a developmental behavioral pediatrician, for some of this testing.
- Consult with the specialists. There are a number of specialists who might help you find out what’s behind your child’s impulsivity. A neurologist might look for brain-based medical issues including ADHD. A speech pathologist would look for language disorders. And a mental health professional might look for anxiety or depression. They may also recommend that you have your child evaluated by a learning specialist.
- Look into an educational evaluation. You or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate your child. This is to see how his issues are affecting his learning. Depending on the results your child may be able to get supports to meet his needs. Those might include social skills training and a rewards-based behavior plan. If the school agrees to do it, the evaluation will be free.
If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, there are effective treatments that can help. The doctor will explain your options and will monitor your child’s progress. Your child’s school may also provide supports such as a 504 plan to help him succeed in school.
Whether or not to get a diagnosis is totally up to you, however.
What You Can Do Now
Working with professionals can help you get answers about the cause of your child’s impulsivity. But you don’t need a diagnosis to start making things better for both of you. Here are some suggestions:
- Learn as much as you can. Understanding your child’s impulsive behavior can make it easier to find the help he needs. It can also help you remember that he’s not acting this way on purpose.
- Observe and take notes. Keeping track of when your child is being impulsive can provide valuable information. Your notes can help you and professionals working with your child figure out what’s going on.
- Point out unwanted behaviors. Your child may not realize when he’s being impulsive. Calmly pointing it out to him in private will help him “see” his behavior even if it’s after the fact. Eventually he may be able to catch himself before he acts. (Keep in mind that some kids won’t be able to control their impulsivity just by trying harder—so consult a medical provider if you continue to have concerns.)
- Catch your child being good. Most kids with poor impulse control genuinely want to behave. Offer praise when you see your child manage his impulses. Discuss how it makes him feel and how it affects other people.
- Connect with other parents. Impulsivity is a key symptom of ADHD, the most common brain-based condition in childhood. That means a lot of families are dealing with it. But no matter what’s causing your child’s issues, you’re not alone. In our community, you can talk to people who understand and can provide support and advice along the way.
- Get advice from our experts. Find tips and suggestions from our experts on a wide range of concerns. Get advice on how to deal with impulsive and unsafe behavior in Parenting Coach.
If your child has impulsivity issues, it’s not because of anything you have or haven’t done. Brain differences make it hard for him to control his behavior and responses. You can help him gain some control, however. Knowing what’s causing his issues can make it easier to find the strategies and treatments that work best.