Understanding Your Child’s Impulsivity

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • Most kids have times when they act without thinking.

  • When kids act impulsively, they might get wrongly labeled as careless, mean, or rude.

  • There are ways to help kids with impulsivity.

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.

But what about kids who seem unable to put on the “mental brakes”? If your child often interrupts people, grabs things, and takes physical risks, you may wonder why that’s happening. Is it immaturity? Bad judgment? Or is there something more to this impulsive behavior?

Learn about impulsivity, and how you can help your child learn to have better self-control.

Impulsive Behavior You Might Be Seeing

What does impulsivity look like? When it happens once in a while, it can look like everyday kid behavior. When it happens a lot, though, it looks like what it actually is: trouble with self-control.

Impulsivity doesn’t appear the same way in every child. And the behaviors can change as kids get older. When kids are impulsive, they might:

  • Do silly or inappropriate things to get attention

  • Have trouble following rules consistently

  • Be aggressive toward other kids (hitting, kicking, or biting is common in young kids)

  • Have trouble waiting their turn in games and conversation

  • Grab things from people or push in line

  • Overreact to frustration, disappointment, mistakes, and criticism

  • Want to have the last word and the first turn

  • 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

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. So, you might see behaviors that you thought would have ended long ago.

What Can Cause Impulsivity in Kids

Kids can be impulsive for lots of reasons. Sometimes, it really is 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.

Lack of sleep can be another reason for 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 and may not even know why they’re stressed out or frustrated.

For some kids, there may be something else causing the impulsivity. One of the most common causes of frequent impulsive behavior is ADHD. Many kids and adults have ADHD, and it often runs in families. So you might see some of these behaviors in other close family members.

ADHD makes it hard to contain intense feelings, like anger. For instance, when kids with ADHD get angry, they might kick the furniture or say something mean, rather than quietly fume.

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

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, like with ADHD, kids don’t mean to be rude or aggressive. They do need more help and practice, though, to learn to stop and think before acting.

No matter what’s causing your child’s impulsivity, there are ways to help your child improve and gain confidence. And having more control over their actions can make kids feel more “mature” and boost their self-esteem.

How to Help Kids Manage Impulsivity

There are lots of ways to help your child. A good place to start is to take notes on what you’re seeing at home. It can give you a better idea of why your child might be struggling.

For instance, if you think your child’s impulsivity is related to feeling frustrated, try using a frustration log. It can help you track behaviors you’re seeing and discover patterns over time.

If there’s a pattern that goes on for a while, you may want to talk to someone. Your child’s teacher and doctor can be helpful sources of information and advice, and they may have suggestions for how you can help your child.

If you think your child might have ADHD, explore the next steps to take. And if your child’s behavior seems “out of control” and you’re unsure why, find out what to do. That might include a free school evaluation, which can steer you in the right direction for getting help. It can also give you a better sense of your child’s challenges and strengths.

Even if you’re not sure why your child acts impulsively, you can still work on building skills at home. Explore strategies for:

Struggling with impulsivity or any other behavior challenge can impact how kids feel about themselves. Explain to your child that lots of people have these challenges, and that self-control can improve with work. Talk about your child’s strengths, and remember to celebrate even small wins as your child works on gaining self-control.

Key Takeaways

  • Improving self-control can make kids feel better about themselves.

  • Some kids can’t help being impulsive, but they can learn ways to control it.

  • ADHD is a common cause of impulsivity, but it’s not the only one.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

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