Impulsive behavior and poor decisions are common symptoms of

Impulsive Behavior: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

An impulsive behavior is when you act quickly with no thought to the consequences. There’s nothing on your mind beyond that exact moment.

We all engage in impulsive behavior from time to time, especially when we’re young. As we mature, we learn to control our impulses for the most part. It’s not necessarily part of a disorder.

Frequent impulsive behavior can be associated with certain mental health conditions.

By itself, impulsive behavior is not a disorder. Anyone can act on impulse once in a while.

Sometimes, impulsive behavior is part of an impulse control disorder or other mental health disorder. This may be the case when:

  • there’s a pattern of impulsive behavior
  • you’re unable to gain control over impulses
  • there are other signs and symptoms of mental illness

Acting on impulse is spontaneous. There’s no consideration to how it could affect others. There’s no wondering how you’ll feel about it later. It’s just about the here and now.

Examples of this include:

  • bingeing: overindulging in things like shopping, gambling, and eating
  • destruction of property: destroying your own or someone else’s things in a moment of anger
  • escalating problems: taking minor situations and making them more urgent and important than necessary
  • frequent outbursts: losing your cool far too often, even when it’s clearly uncalled for
  • lots of starting over: abruptly joining and quitting groups or wiping the slate clean in search of a fresh start
  • oversharing: talking without thinking and sharing intimate details
  • physical violence: overreacting by getting physical in the spur of the moment
  • higher risk sex: engaging in sex without a condom or other barrier method, especially with a person whose STI status is unknown
  • self-harm: hurting yourself in the heat of anger, sadness, or disappointment

Young children are often impulsive. That’s because they don’t yet realize how their own behavior can affect others. They may not understand that their actions have consequences beyond their immediate wants.

Some examples of this are:

  • ignoring danger: running into the street without checking traffic or jumping into a pool even though they can’t swim
  • interrupting: frequently butting into conversations
  • getting physical: pushing another child or throwing something when upset
  • grabbing: Taking what they want rather than asking or waiting for a turn
  • getting vocal: screaming or yelling in frustration

How we make decisions is a complex process. The cause of being impulsive may not always be evident.

People may also indulge in risky behavior for reasons other than impulsivity. It’s also not uncommon to see impulsiveness in young children who haven’t developed self-control.

Studies show that impulsivity may have something to do with the prefrontal lobe. Other research suggests an association between impulsivity and brain connectivity.

Researchers have a long way to go to fully understand the links between impulsivity and:

  • personality
  • brain connectivity
  • brain function

Physical conditions, such as brain lesions and stroke, can also lead to symptoms such as impulsive behavior.

Anyone can become frequently impulsive, but it can sometimes be a sign of an underlying disorder.

The following are some disorders that may lead to impulsivity. The exact causes for these disorders are unknown. They may develop due to a combination of factors that include:

  • genetics
  • environment
  • brain function
  • brain injury
  • physical changes in the brain
  • childhood trauma

Borderline personality disorder

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition involving emotional instability. Symptoms include:

  • impulsivity
  • poor self-image
  • dangerous behaviors
  • self-harm

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by extreme shifts in mood, often mania or depression.

In a manic episode, someone may have the symptom of impulsive behavior. Other symptoms include:

  • high energy
  • agitation
  • racing thoughts and talkativeness
  • euphoria
  • less need for sleep
  • poor decision-making

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

People with ADHD can find it hard to pay attention and control impulsive behavior. Symptoms can include:

  • restlessness
  • forgetfulness
  • interrupting others
  • trouble focusing or concentrating

Substance use

Certain substances, such as alcohol, can break down inhibitions. This can lead to impulsive behavior.

On the other hand, impulsivity may contribute to the development of substance use disorders. It may not be possible to determine which came first.

Antisocial personality disorder

Antisocial personality disorder involves impulsive and manipulative behavior. Other symptoms are:

  • quick to anger
  • arrogance
  • lying
  • aggressiveness
  • a lack of remorse

Intermittent explosive disorder

In intermittent explosive disorder, a person experiences frequent episodes of impulsive or aggressive behavior. Examples of this are:

  • temper tantrums
  • physical violence
  • road rage


Kleptomania is a rare condition in which you can’t resist the compulsion to steal. People with kleptomania tend to have coexisting mental health disorders. These can include anxiety and depression.


Pyromania is a rare mental health disorder — a type of impulse control disorder — in which you can’t control the impulse to set fires.


Trichotillomania is another rare condition. It involves a powerful desire to pull out your own hair.

This condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder, though it was formerly classified as an impulse control disorder.

Brain injury or stroke

Brain injury or stroke can lead to changes in behavior. This includes:

  • impulsiveness
  • poor judgement
  • short attention span

Even if you don’t have a diagnosis of a mental health condition, frequent impulsive behavior is something you should address.

Impulsive behavior can lead to other inappropriate behaviors with potentially serious consequences. Research shows a relationship between impulsivity and:

  • suicide in people who have borderline personality disorder
  • drug misuse in those who use multiple drugs
  • manic episodes
  • depressive episodes

Other research shows a link between impulsiveness and violent behavior.

If you or your child frequently behave on impulse, see a doctor. You can start with a primary care physician or pediatrician. If necessary, they can refer you to a mental health specialist.

How to approach this behavior depends on the cause. In many cases, the person is not at fault. They may not have the ability to change.

When it’s your child, you can:

  • make them aware of their impulsivity and how it affects them later
  • explore alternative behaviors by role-playing
  • teach and practice patience

You can deal with your own impulsive tendencies by:

  • mentally walking through potential scenarios and practicing how to stop and think before acting
  • dealing directly with your usual impulsiveness by making it harder to binge, splurge, or dive headlong into things

If you feel that you can’t gain control on your own, a healthcare professional can provide helpful resources.

Everyone behaves impulsively sometimes. Most of the time, we can work to limit those behaviors on our own.

Sometimes, impulsive behavior is part of an impulse control disorder or other type of mental health condition. These disorders can be treated.

If you have major problems due to impulsive behavior, help is available. Take the first step and see a doctor.

Signs & Causes of Impulse Control Disorder

When children and adolescents severely struggle to control their emotions and behaviors, they may potentially be suffering from an impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are characterized by chronic problems in which people lack the ability to maintain self-control which ultimately results in the onset of extreme disruptions and dysfunctions in personal, familial, social, and academic aspects of their lives. Children and adolescents with impulse control disorders frequently engage in repetitive, destructive behaviors despite the adverse consequences that arise from the participation in those behaviors.  These individuals do not possess the necessary skills required to govern behaviors and emotional responses appropriately and treatment is necessary. Even in cases where individuals suffering from these conditions have a desire to gain control over their emotions and behaviors, they find it difficult, and almost impossible, to do so due to the fact that the urges to participate in the behaviors are undeniably overwhelming and all-consuming.

Some of the most common forms of impulse control disorders that present in children and adolescents are described in the following:

Kleptomania involves an uncontrollable, irresistible, and repetitive impulse to steal and hoard items that belong to others. Those who have kleptomania are commonly aware of the fact that engaging in such behavior is wrong and senseless, but continue to do so even despite the fact that, in most cases, the items being stolen are not even something that they need. Additionally, when these individuals begin feeling the urge to participate in such theft, they become plagued by feelings of tension prior to committing the theft, and then feel a sense of pleasure, gratification, and relief once the theft has been completed. It is also important to note that, when people have kleptomania, they are not engaging in theft as a means of expressing anger or vengeance, nor are they doing so in response to a hallucination or delusion. It is simply indicative of the presence of this form of mental illness.

Pyromania refers to the deliberate and purposeful act of setting things on fire in order to relieve the tension or affective arousal that has arisen prior to completing the act. People with pyromania have a sincere, albeit unhealthy, fascination with fire and find pleasure and gratification upon witnessing the results of their fire-setting.

Compulsive sexual behavior is typically identified by the presence of excessive and uncontrollable thoughts about sexual activity or the irrepressible need to participate in behaviors involving sexual activity. Examples of compulsive sexual behaviors can include things such as promiscuity, excessive masturbation, exhibitionism, voyeurism, excessive use of pornography, and extreme fetishes that become so powerful that the desires to participate in such behaviors begin to overrule a person’s ability to function appropriately on a daily basis.

Intermittent explosive disorder tends to be more frequently diagnosed than other impulse control disorders and entails physical and/or emotional outbursts that can be aggressive in nature. These outbursts are recurrent and are characterized by the presence of extreme tension leading up to the outburst and then are often followed by feelings of remorse and embarrassment once the outburst has subsided.

Difficult teenager: how to help a child and not go crazy during his growing up

Children's crises of three and seven years seem like flowers in comparison with the crisis of adolescence. This is the most difficult period of growing up, which goes hand in hand with tantrums, disobedience, a storm of emotions, impulsive and reckless actions. And we are not talking about alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, violence. And about the fact that it is difficult for parents to believe that the militant person in the next room is their son or daughter, and now thoughts about a boarding school or a school for difficult teenagers are already slipping through. But let's try to figure it out, you can help children at the stage of personality formation, psyche, values, outlook on life.

What's in a teenager's head

And in their head they have a brain that is actively developing and therefore processes information differently from the brain of an adult. The frontal cortex, which is responsible for managing emotions and making decisions, is currently being rebuilt, so it is temporarily unstable. Hence the teenage psychos, tears, aggression. And it’s different for everyone, of course, but closer to the age of 20-23-25, the brain reaches full maturity and the inner bowls of emotions come into balance.

It turns out that your son or daughter is already taller than you, and in some situations their judgments seem quite mature, but at the same time, actions and reactions to most things are not yet at the level of adults. The body changes physically, the brain rebuilds, add hormones here and here you have a ready-made difficult teenager, whose upbringing is not an easy task. And of course, biological prerequisites do not justify the bad behavior of teenagers and do not remove responsibility for their actions, but now it becomes clear to parents that rebelliousness and rudeness are not a conscious choice, but another crisis of growing up that needs to be helped to cope.


Adolescents and adults read and understand emotions in other people's faces in different ways, and adolescents often draw the wrong conclusions. To read emotional signals, adults use the prefrontal cortex of the brain, while children use the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for ensuring that our thoughts and actions are in line with our own internal goals. And the amygdala "commands" the formation of emotions.

How to distinguish between typical adolescent behavior and problematic behavior

When a person grows up and already claims independence and tries to find his own identity, behavioral changes seem strange and unpredictable to parents. This cutest child used to cry when mom and dad went to work or, oh horror!, went on a business trip. And now he does not kiss you at night, rolls his eyes and slams the door, because he does not want to go to the country and he is tired of your life teachings. This is unbearable for parents, but it is normal in adolescence.

At one of his lectures, Dima Zitser advised to become “the only person who does not educate a child, does not motivate and does not spoil his life in every possible way.” And then, according to the teacher, the teenager himself will come to mom and dad with all his joys and sorrows .

But the problems that go beyond the typical at this age, you should pay close attention. Bad company, alcohol or drug use, missing classes without good reason, violence (including self-harm), theft, etc. Symptoms of psychological disorders, for example: depression, anxiety, eating disorder. All this is not typical, and the intervention of parents or another significant adult is simply necessary.

Dima Zitser

Let's look at a few examples: what is normal in the period of growing up, and where you need to take the bull by the horns.

Typical teenager
Problem teenager
Appearance changes
Teenagers tend to keep up with fashion. Strange clothes, a riot of colors in the hair, tattoos - not always parents manage to refrain from criticism or prohibitions, but here it is still more important to keep your opinion for bigger problems. It is worth considering if changes in appearance are associated with problems at school or other negative behavioral changes. Excessive weight loss or weight gain is also a wake-up call.
Increasing the base of arguments and manifestation of a rebellious spirit
Teenagers argue and defend their opinion, forcing parents to choose between banging their heads against the table or banging their heads against the wall. But you have to be patient. This is how children learn independence. Out of bounds is the behavior in which the child provokes conflicts and arguments, fights or violence at school if there are problems with the law.
Mood swings
The hormones that we talked about above make emotions run wild, but a teenager learns to control them. Self-esteem falls and takes off, irritation is replaced by a surge of tenderness, after laughter, crocodile tears flow in streams - all this is ok. It is not OK if self-esteem is at zero for a long period of time, if the child is constantly sad, restless and anxious, if sleep goes wrong - all this may indicate depression. Bullying others and yourself, mentioning suicide is also not a good sign.
Alcohol and drug experimentation
Let's be honest. Most of us tried alcohol, and some marijuana, during our teenage years. And most likely, most did not like either the taste or the bouts of nausea. Now, one way to get your child on the right path is to talk frankly with him about alcohol and drugs. The likelihood that a teenager will refuse to try if someone offers is not high, but the sprout that you plant will bear fruit and beer will not quietly become a habit. Alcohol abuse or signs of substance use should be nipped in the bud.
Influence of friends
Adolescents, of course, are more guided by their peers than by their parents. Friends during this period are extremely important and have a huge impact on the choice of the child. But this does not mean that he no longer needs parental support and love. This means that parents need to tune in to the same wavelength with their teenagers. Well, at least listen to music in the car from his phone, and not from yours. So what, what about matyuks, do not curl your ears into any tubes. But you will become closer with your own children. But if friends incite bad behavior, incite to refuse to comply with reasonable limits and boundaries, and avoid the consequences of bad behavior through deceit, this is a sign that something is missing somewhere. As well as the fact that the child spends too much time alone and has no friends at all.
Working with troubled teenagers: help from the family and a psychologist

Parents who have found signs from the right column in their child's behavior may need the help of a psychologist - he will tell you what to do in a particular situation and where to turn. There is nothing shameful in this, because re-education and help are important, and not “what people say”. Moreover, psychotherapy sessions are only half the battle, because now the support of mom and dad and other family members is very important.

Finding a path to the soul of a child is not always easy, but the result is worth every attempt. No. And instead of gnawing at yourself from the inside, you should focus on the current needs of the child. And the first thing to do is to find a way to a teenager, to try to understand his feelings as much as possible in the emotional and social-behavioral aspects. Below we provide a few suggestions that may help.

Communicate with your troubled teen

Sometimes it's hard for parents to believe that a teenager who is out of control still needs the love and approval of his mom and dad. But this is true. Positive personal connection is the fastest way to relieve stress and calm the nervous system. This means that parents have a much greater influence on their teenager than they think.

How to connect :

  • Learn to understand yourself and your inner stress level . Do not attempt to communicate with the child if at this particular moment you yourself feel anger, resentment, anger and other negative emotions. First, calm down, try to recharge with positive energy, be patient. Then, get in touch.
  • Be there even when a teenager snorts and shows with his whole appearance that this is superfluous . Not in the sense of following him around, but let's say, come up with a joint tradition that will help you spend quality time together. For example, go to a cozy coffee shop for coffee on Saturdays. Or once a month, go to nature together. Even in winter. You may have to go to different tricks to lure a child into such family networks. It may not be possible to find even a very small thread that will help establish a connection between a parent and a child right away, but if we do not condemn our children, we do not constantly scold and annoy with moralizing, then it will become much more pleasant for them to share their experiences with us.
  • Try to find a common language and common interests . Don't criticize ripped jeans and green hair. Instead, look for points of contact. For example, a father and son can establish contact through sports or cars, and a mother and daughter through beauty treatments or movies. Remember that the goal now is not to become best friends, but to find topics that can be discussed without tantrums and screams.
  • Listen to the child, do not judge him or give any advice, do not criticize, do not threaten, do not ridicule . If a teenager starts talking, he wants you to understand him. So focus on your child, make eye contact, put away your cell phone, sit back from your laptop. Just become a listener.
  • Be prepared for failure . Teenagers sometimes perceive all parental attempts at communication with hostility. It's OK. Cool down both, and then you, as an older and more experienced person, try again. Once again. And further. The main thing is not to give up. After all, no one promised us that it would be easy.


Leave your child alone if they are currently under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You will definitely talk, but only when everyone is able to perceive the information adequately. The same rule applies to prescription drugs. That is, if the child is taking antidepressants, for example.

Learn to deal with teenage anger and violence

Hormones plus different life situations plus the environment can turn a nice child into an aggressive teenager. Parents have a hard time, because every knock on the door and every call can bring the news that the child has been harmed or he has harmed someone. Teenage girls are also angry, but according to statistics, boys are more likely to solve issues with their fists. And sometimes they take out their anger on their parents.


Everyone has the right to safety. Therefore, if a teenager is abusing his parents, there is nothing shameful in asking for help from a friend / girlfriend, relative or calling the police. This does not mean that you do not love your child. No. Just the safety of the whole family comes first.

Dealing with teenage aggression etc. And if a child has not yet learned to cope with internal negativity, he may put himself and others at risk. This is especially true for boys. The task of parents is to help him learn to overcome feelings of anger constructively, not destructively:

  • set boundaries, rules, consequences . When the child is calm, explain that it is okay to feel angry, but there are more civilized ways to express it. Specify that if he starts a fight, you will have to face the consequences, and possibly the police. Please try not to sound like a threat.
  • Try to understand what is behind the anger . Maybe sadness and depression? Or the child is greatly lacking in some thing that a friend has and does not have. Or maybe he needs a person who will listen and not judge?
  • Help understand the triggers that cause outbursts of rage . Perhaps his head starts to hurt, or he sees something or someone in particular. Try to find out what physical feelings the teenager is experiencing in the moment before the anger and at moment X. When you know the signs that everything inside is about to explode, it is easier to defuse the situation and not let it get out of hand. For example, if a child notices that before kicking someone, his fists are clenched, then his fingers need to be unclenched before the kick. If you see someone, turn away.
  • Find healthy ways to curb anger : sports, drawing, diary. Running, cycling, team sports or the punching bag are particularly effective. And you can also turn on the music to the fullest and dance dances. It helps not only teenagers, but also adults.
  • Give your child more air . If he gets angry and goes to his room or outside, don't follow him. Let it cool down and take a breath. Do not demand apologies and explanations when the hurricane in the child’s soul has not yet subsided, this will only provoke him even more, and even cause a physical reaction.
  • Learn to manage your own anger . Even if a teenager provokes parents, it is important to remain calm and balanced. Sometimes it's better to tell your child about your feelings and go to another room. So say, “I’m just pissed off. I need to get some air / drink water / wash my face.” And try to breathe deeply to saturate the brain with oxygen.
Anger and anger can always be controlled

Signals that may indicate that a child is prone to outbursts of anger and violence:

  • games with any weapon;
  • obsessive desire to play violent video games, watch violent films, visit sites that promote violence;
  • threatening or intimidating other children and sometimes adults;
  • fantasies about acts of violence he would like to commit;
  • cruelty and aggression towards animals.
How to Recognize the Signs of Teenage Depression

Sometimes teenage reckless behavior hides real depression. Symptoms of this condition can be very different:

  • inability to concentrate and loss of energy leading to poor school performance;
  • running away from home or talking about it is often a cry for help;
  • Adolescents use alcohol or drugs to cope with depression;
  • low self-esteem, feelings of shame, social anxiety, inability to adequately perceive criticism - all this is like a permanent state of the child;
  • any gadgets as a means to escape from real life and isolate yourself from the world. Do not supplement your life with virtual communication, but go there with your head;
  • reckless behavior and involvement in dangerous activities: stealing mother's or father's car, drunkenness, promiscuous unprotected sex;
  • violence. More often this applies to boys who, during a period of depression, become aggressive and cruel, embarrassed to talk about mental pain or resentment.
Help your teenager find balance and harmony with himself and the world

Create rituals, schedule, daily routine . The realization that no matter what happens in the evening, in the morning mom will feed a delicious breakfast gives a sense of security.

Encourage sports . If a teenager does not want or cannot exercise, ride bicycles, buy him a gyroboard or a scooter.

Watch your nutrition . Our well-being directly depends on what we eat. A healthy and tasty diet can restore energy and cheer up.

Make sure your child gets enough sleep . Lack of sleep shatters the nervous system, causes stress, irritability, and even affects weight. A child's brain needs 9 hours of sleep-11 o'clock.

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