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Impulsivity in kids: Getting past “What were you thinking?!”

Impulsivity can be a big challenge for kids with ADHD. But it’s also something that many kids struggle with. What drives impulsive behavior? And how can we help kids manage it? 

In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek take a deep dive into impulsivity with psychologist and Understood expert Dr. Andrew Kahn. Hear Andy explain what impulsivity is, its connection to ADHD, and why all kids can struggle with it. 

Get practical tips for how to help kids manage impulsive behavior. Learn the difference between impulsive and compulsive behaviors. Plus, find out how to help kids reduce risky behaviors that stem from impulsivity. 

Related resources

Episode transcript 

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: …the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about impulsivity.

Gretchen: This can be a big challenge for kids with ADHD.

Rachel: And the people who are responsible for them.

Gretchen: But it's really something that many of us struggle with in this impulse-driven world of ours.

Rachel: To talk about what drives impulsivity and how to manage it, we've got our very own Andy Kahn here today.

Gretchen: Andy is a licensed psychologist and the associate director of behavior change and expertise at Understood.

Rachel: Andy's been on the podcast before, and we're so happy to have him here today. Andy, welcome back to "In It."

Andy: Thanks so much for having me.

Gretchen: We're so glad to have you back. And as usual, we want to start by just defining our terms. So, what is impulsivity?

Andy: At its core, impulsivity is sort of the idea where people don't think before they speak, act, or engage in some behavior. So, it's a pretty vague term in a lot of ways. And I think it's really easy to get lost in the weeds with it. But hopefully, we can keep that pretty simple because I think there's a lot of simple things to know that probably could be helpful for folks to hear about.

Gretchen: Yeah. And I think, you know, this time of year, impulsivity comes up because there's lots going on. And so, people have questions. And so, maybe can you give us a couple examples of what impulsivity might look like in younger kids versus older kids?

Andy: Sure. So, you know, one of the great equalizers with impulsivity is impulsivity is almost, by its nature, an immature behavior pattern. It is, you know, when you think about the difference between maturing and being a little kid. Little kids do a lot of things without thinking it through. Sometimes because they can't imagine circumstances that haven't happened already — that's developmental — or in other cases, they're just not able to control themselves in time to do things that they're supposed to do. So, give you a, you know, a pretty simple example: yesterday, standing in a line at a store, and happened to see a former family I used to work with and their youngest child, who I don't know is walking through the line at, let's say, a local, it's a local craft store. And you know what they do at the craft stores. When you're waiting in line, you've already made your child miserable. And all they have on the line out are candies and, you know, little things that kids love. So, this little boy...

Gretchen: The impulse aisle.

Andy: Yeah, exactly.

Gretchen: Isn't that what they call it, the impulse?

Rachel: For everybody.

Andy: Yes, it is for all of us. So, this little one goes over, grabs a candy bar, unwraps it and has it in mouth before a parent can give any sort of cue or feedback. So, needless to say, the impulse was "I'm hungry, that's good. I want it now." And it was over before it started. And, you know, for a kid at three and a half years of age, developmentally, it was not all that far out of the range, but, you know, impulsive. Another example, saw this just recently, a couple of kids were out playing middle school sports and one of our female athletes was out and did not like the call on the field. Someone came up alongside her and was a little close and before she even had a chance to think as the opponent came up on her hip, her elbow was up and she elbowed this other player right in the center of the chest in the effort to get to the ball because she had just been bumped a few too many times, didn't get a call on the sideline.

So, you know, in those moments, the impulse was there before the thought about, "Oh, if I get a yellow card, if I give a free kick here, this is not going to be good for me or my team." So, you know, impulsivity can be those physical actions. Another kind of impulsivity that we see all the time: there are people that I work with sometimes in my schools and, you know, I have ADHD. I'm very aware of how my ADHD leads me to function in situations. So, someone who goes to a lot of meetings I'm watching very carefully. If I have a thought, I give myself a chance before I share it.

Unfortunately, at the meeting I went to recently, a fellow adult heard something that they thought was maybe not such a happy thing to hear and immediately spoke out and said, "That's BS" in a meeting with, you know, eight or ten people, a parent, an administrator. So, that impulse to defend, to react with emotion was there verbally. So, you know, these are pretty classic examples of what impulsivity can look like everyday life.

Gretchen: Yeah, everyday life.

Rachel: And yeah, it is everyday life. And, you know, we often associate impulsive behavior with ADHD, even though we also see it everywhere. But what's the connection there? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Andy: Sure. I mean, you know, I think one of the things we see in the research with ADHD specifically is that there are parts of the brain that are developing more slowly than developing neurotypical folks. So, when it comes to things like planning activity, the psychobabble term for executive function, planning, initiating tasks, organizing tasks, knowing how to take them from start to finish, and knowing when they're done. And this comes into play in terms of planning our behavior.

So, for folks with ADHD, they tend to be a little slower to develop those skills and they may be more prone to taking in stimuli, the things that come at them sight, sound, sensation of all types, and they tend to react to them pretty strongly and immediately before their brain has the time to say, "Stop and think." So, you know, impulsivity can also be driven by those sensory components, which is I'll give you an example of myself at the end of a workday, and usually with my ADHD, 4:30 is about the endpoint of my cognitive, you know, integrity. If I have a big meeting at 5 o’clock or something having to do with one of my daughter's hobbies and I have to go to a meeting before I get downtime, my neurology is just fritzy. It's just crackling.

And as soon as let’s say maybe someone pulls out in front of me in the car, I might have a much more impulsive and rapid emotional reaction because my ADHD is not allowing me to sort of regulate my emotions as easily or as quickly. So, there's a fatigue factor there as well. But impulsivity with ADHD is really about developing the skills in the underdeveloped parts of the brain, a lot of which comes into play, because a lot of those emotions are strong and they tend to have a lot more difficulty being controlled.

Rachel: So, are there other reasons a child may be behaving impulsively apart from having ADHD?

Andy: Sure. Well, I mean, impulsivity is really about delay of gratification for a lot of folks, too. And I think that that's a developing skill for humans in general. So, you know, look at American credit card debt. Think about the holiday season. We have entire systems of commercialism that are based on the idea that we want you to be impulsive and we want you to be commercialized, and we want you to feel that you must transfer the idea of what you want into something that you think you need. And I think that those are developing skills and can be particularly hard at varying points in development.

You know, a typical teenager could be particularly impulsive if they feel that they're not able to get the things they want or need most in their lives. And you can see a lot of behavior that comes from that. And, you know, it's not just an ADHD thing. There's a tremendous amount of research that shows folks who have learning disabilities have a much higher probability of having challenges with impulsivity.

So, I think that there is a neurological aspect of being human that makes us pretty susceptible to this. But impulsivity is definitely something, it's part of raising kids is teaching them. Are we teaching kids about managing money? Are we teaching kids about delaying gratification and saving for a big thing? Or planning for something that might mean you can't get something you want today? And I think culturally, I will say to you, I don't see that a lot. I didn't get a lot of that growing up. And I had great parents. They just that wasn't on our radar.

Gretchen: Yeah. I'll tell you this quick thing I do with my kids, because I've seen a lot of this impulsive spending, not that my kids have tons of money to spend, but just because kids have, you know, their own like teen accounts, it seems so easy just to be "Sure I'll pay for that," and they're not even thinking about what they're doing. So, I try to make them have the 24-hour rule for major purchases, right? Like a, you know, a snack at the store, but like, "I want to go and buy this book." "OK, great. I'll let you buy it tomorrow. If you still want it. Think about it for 24 hours." That's my hot tip.

Rachel: Well, and they're getting, like, gift cards as gifts, you know? And it's like when either one of my kids gets a gift card, they have to spend the whole thing. Like, there is no, like, "Oh, I got a $30 gift card. I'm going to go buy that $10 thing, and then I've got $20 to get something another time." No way. That is totally not happening.

Gretchen: Got to spend it all.

Andy: Yeah, I think gift cards can be quite a trap.

Rachel: Andy, I want to ask about a different kind of scenario, and here's a spoiler alert if anyone is listening with kids, this has to do with the big guy in the red suit. OK. My very skeptical child has pretty much figured out the truth about Santa on her own. I'm kind of like, "Fine. She knows the deal." But here's the thing. I've asked her a few different times to keep this to herself as some of her peers and their families take Santa pretty seriously. And I want to be respectful of that.

Even so, with one pal in particular, she has revealed her discovery. To be clear, this was not malicious. It was more like, "Oh, my gosh, I have to tell you, this kind of big thing." But still, this kind of thing happens enough that it makes me want to ask, what do we do as parents and caregivers when our kids are aware of something that they shouldn't say or do and they just can't not do it?

Andy: Yeah. I think the risk exists that we're always afraid to tell our kids what not to do in advance because we're convinced they're going to do it. And I think that to a certain degree, that's actually a little more a compulsive behavior, the urge to do something you know, you shouldn't do. There's actually consideration there. And there's a feeling of release of tension when you do something that you've been ruminating about. So that's a compulsive behavior. It's a little bit different.

Impulsive is, you know, the idea that there's really no thought placed into it. It is merely a reaction. It's a momentary blurb. So, I plan for impulsivity, for example, by pre-teaching. If I'm going to so-and-so's house and I know they're sensitive to something, I know my kid does on a regular basis, I'm going to say "I just want you to be aware, you know, cousin so-and-so likes to talk about politics, and I know you have strong ideas about this. My advice to you is: save that conversation for home because they're going to frustrate you," or whatever the situation is. I always think pre-teaching is a safe starting place to teach your child "If you do A, B is likely to happen," which is, in many ways, part of the antidote to impulsivity, is to think you think as much as you can before they act, and you share that with them.

Rachel: Yeah.

Andy: When it comes to those compulsive behaviors, it's a little bit different because those children who feel pressured to do something they can't stop thinking about in that moment may require a little more, — and I guess some of the interventions are the same — teaching them how to self-calm, teaching them how to regulate their energy, which is the basis of all of that pressure.

And I think those things can be really powerful to do. But pre-teaching is a great way to navigate these situations with your child. It's not about solving it. It's about lowering the probability of failure. And that's really what we're talking about.

Gretchen: So, you shared earlier that you have ADHD and you've talked a little bit about how you manage some of your hard days, like how you feel at the end of a day. I wonder if you could think back to your childhood, though, for a moment. Did little Andy have impulsive behaviors that you remember? I'm just curious.

Andy: Well, I'd have to say yes. You know, one of the challenges of being someone who has the inattentive type of ADHD is that a lot of my behaviors weren't terribly obvious, but I, my impulsivity was definitely part of the factor. And it happened at home. I held it together all day in school, and I did not show any behaviors in school outside of I had very good familiarity with all of the windows, how many tiles there are on the floor, the color of the custodian's uniform that day, and a lot of other irrelevant things that were very interesting to me.

But when it came to being impulsive, I came home, and God help my sister, I would usually let that impulsivity out on her if something tweaked me. There was no thinking following the rules. It was just boom. And she bore the brunt of a lot of that. I would also blow up at my parents at times, where they would redirect me and I would impulsively overreact. You know, I just wasn't thinking very clearly about what I was doing in the moment to moment. So, yeah.

Gretchen: Thank you for sharing that, because then that brings me to my next question, which is, OK, so for families with kids at home who may be having trouble with impulsivity, what are some starting places? Let's say you've got the kid who when you take to the playground, they're upset or angry about something and their impulse is to shove another kid. Or maybe you have a blurter, like we've talked about earlier, right? A blurter of facts, a blurter of swear words, when you know, what are some tips you have for families?

Andy: Boy. And so much of this is, I'm going to say what I said a little bit earlier, at best, an intervention with an impulsive child is about reducing the probability. It's not you're not going to make it go away. It's going to be a combination of time, effort and sometimes a little bit of luck. But in terms of for parents, again, when you're going into a situation that, you know, might be charged in the sensory method or a kid's getting ready to go and play a game with their team, talking about scenarios and ways to manage if they're feeling stressed, if they're feeling too emotional.

And one thing I want to really emphasize here, being impulsive or reactive isn't just about being upset or angry. In fact, if something really happy happens or something really cool is going on, yep, that child may be the one who's most likely to tip it over the edge because they can't control their impulses in that moment and they get wild. So, understanding it's a bidirectional thing. It can happen with the good and it can happen with the bad. But talking about it with your child and acknowledging, "You know, I understand that your brain operates a little differently, and sometimes it's really hard to stop yourself before something happens." And we practice things like "Before you go in to start a conversation with that new kid, take a breath, take a moment, and press your thumb in the middle of your hand for two or three seconds, really, really deeply. And then start talking to them: "You know, little things to get them to regulate their bodies because you know that those sensations are going to be powerful.

Pre-teaching is key number one. Teaching self-calming and self-regulation, whether it's deep breathing, isometrics, pressing those bodies up against the wall, or pushing your hands together, anything that can help them be aware of their body in space may give them the chance to bring those arousal levels down. And those are actually sort of time buyers. They buy you a little bit of time from the reaction to what's going on around you.

So, I think that's a really, really important thing to keep in mind, is that we're training their bodies to manage the emotion and physical aspects and also to plan. Is it always going to work? Well, no. How do you set yourself up for success? I always joke about this, watching Seinfeld back in the day, there was a great episode with George Costanza, who would always tell a joke during a meeting at work, and he might get a great laugh, but he decided he was going to tell another or another joke, very ADHD of him, in a way. But what George learned in the episode was that the idea of "leave them on a high note." He came in, he told the joke, they laughed, "Thanks, I'm out of here." And he walked out of the meeting.

But the same idea goes for your kids. Set your child up for situations that are just long enough for them to be successful and then leave on a high note. Don't give it a chance to fall apart. Creating structured time for your child to spend 30 minutes instead of 90 minutes with a kid who might be a high-energy peer and let them leave on a positive because stamina, timing, energy, and you know what? It's just hard to hold it together for all that time. So, keeping in mind that, you know what, sometimes we just don't set our kids up for success because I need to do errands for two hours and that doesn't really work for my kids 30-minutes stamina for holding themselves together. But it is something…

Rachel: Afterschool.

Andy: Yeah, after school, Saturday afternoon, you name it. I mean there's a lot of times where that's something to be aware of.

Gretchen: I love the "leave on a high note" idea. Brilliant.

Rachel: Yeah. I think these are such helpful tips and I have a different kind of tip question. I'd love to talk a little bit about when impulsivity becomes a more serious problem or something where it actually creates a dangerous situation for the child or the teenager or someone around them, because I feel like that is, you know, kind of this dangerous territory that we can get into probably sooner than a lot of us realize.

Andy: Yeah. And I and I think it could actually, it can come into play at any age, unfortunately.

Rachel: Yeah. And not to be like alarmist, but you know, every once in a while, there's just like a "Whoa, that could be really dangerous," or you know, whether it's a candle or some, you know, social situations. But, yeah, what do you think about that? And what can we do about those kinds of things?

Andy: So, the sad truth is, in the very early ages of children, when they're very young, it really does require that parents are keeping close proximity to their kids when their kids just aren't able to stay safe. Part of what we see in impulsivity is when we start to see kids who are sensation-seeking, who like to do things that give them a high level of stimulation. The kid who'll climb the tree without thinking when they get up high and realize "I'm 12 feet up, don't have a plan to get down, but I really like the feeling of going up there." A lot of, you know, endorphin firing and good chemicals firing off in that moment. And those are sort of scary moments you know.

In terms of talking to your kids, a lot of this when they're young is about supervision and guidance. As they get older, unfortunately, it's a lot of trying to talk to them about things, you know, that they've made mistakes with before. It's not an easy thing to navigate when your children are engaged in dangerous things. One of the things that I often do, and I've worked with kids with ADHD and kids on the autism spectrum for years, and we talked about how they earn their freedoms and we talked about earning freedoms based on "Can they show me that they're able to be safe in certain environments?"

And parents talking to their kids about, “I'm going to give you freedoms and opportunities for things that I could see as dangerous or as a big, big freedom only after you show me that you can manage it and that you can control yourself.” Kids are going to get pretty ripped at you for that. The reality of this is that impulsive kids, kids with ADHD, many kids with impulse control challenges, often function at about two-thirds of their chronological age. So, I know I was told there be no math, too. That means OK, that means your nine-year-old is pretty typically going to act in terms of impulse control like a six-year-old. And then you do the math ratio up from there.

And I think it's a pretty reasonable thing for yourself as a parent to say, "Well, my 16-year-old right now isn't like a typical 16-year-old who can get that driver's license right now. I need to see some different things." And that's one of the things, if you want to stave off those battles with your kid, you start talking about it when they're 14. So, they're not surprised when they're 16. Start saying, "Hey, I know that when you're 16, a lot of kids are going to be looking for their licenses. Here are the things I expect from you before that comes into being." And let them be angry at 14, means not even close. What a safe behavior mean. Could it mean I come home from school at the time I say I'm going to? I call you with my cell when I get to my friend's house. You know, those little things that show that your kid is safe and setting those parameters as early as they can tolerate them and then sticking to your guns.

Rachel: Parameters are so hard.

Andy: Oh, God, it's hard. It's so hard.

Gretchen: Andy, I'm wondering if you have any other advice for families who might be struggling to understand their kids' impulsive behavior and how to help them with it? Any last words of wisdom here?

Andy: I think my, the most important thing I would say to parents is, impulsive behavior as much as it disrupts your life as a parent and can be embarrassing to you and your environment, it is not typically something your child is intending to do to you. It is something that is happening from a lack of their neurological control. Can you train it? Can you set them up for success? Absolutely. If you continue to work with your child as they mature in age, development, time and effort will make a difference in this situation.

And once you can take ownership of that idea and set your expectations based on your child and not some artificial norm about what other kids are doing, it can be a lot more tolerable to move through that. And that's you know, that's the best advice I can give a parent about that. How long it takes to believe it, whether or not you want to believe it in those stressful moments? I get it. That's a major act of will on your own part. But I've seen it enough over the last 25 years to say I absolutely know that to be true.

Gretchen: Mm hmm. I love the tip about not taking it to heart. Your kid is not doing this to make your life miserable, right? And sometimes we forget, because we get so emotionally involved that we forget.

Rachel: And those are the moments when we're like, "What were you thinking? Why did you do that?" And it's like, there's really no answer to that question.

Andy: No answer. Because we're human and this is how we react when things upset us. And again, we take it personally. And that maybe is sometimes that's a little bit of the adult error. And sometimes our kids are trying to tweak us. I mean, let's be honest, our attention is the most reinforcing thing our child gets. And sometimes they don't care how they get it.

Rachel: Well, I've definitely got a couple of good notes here for myself, so thank you so much. And it's also really great to meet you. I know you've been on the show before, but I'm so glad to be able to talk to you this time.

Andy: You as well. This is always a nice opportunity to sort of join this family here and to be able to sort of have these good conversations.

Gretchen: You can hear more from Andy on Understood Explains, the newest podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. In the first season, he walks us through the ins and outs of how school districts evaluate kids for special education services.

Rachel: It's a great resource I highly recommend.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott. Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.

 

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Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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