Curbing Impulsive Behaviors in Children

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

ADHD has three main symptoms: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. In a previous post, we provided some ways parents can help their child improve their focus and this week we are going to look at impulsivity and offer some ideas for parents to help curb these types of behaviors.

What is Impulsivity?

Impulsive behaviors are those that are done quickly, without thought to the consequences. These are often related to the need for immediate gratification, for example, a young child might grab a toy from another child because he wants to play with the toy "now." Sometimes, impulsive behaviors are dangerous, a young child jumping from the top of a slide without thinking that he may get hurt or a teen driver speeding down the highway in a race with his friends in a different car. While we all react impulsively from time to time, for many children with ADHD, impulsivity is one of the most difficult behaviors and causes the most problems both at home and in the classroom.

The following are some examples of problematic impulsive behaviors:

  • Blurting out answers in class rather than raising hands and waiting to be called on

  • Grabbing toys from other children

  • Pushing or shoving other children when angry or teased

  • Butting in to the front of the line

  • Sensation seeking such as acting in dangerous ways to feel the adrenalin rush

  • Getting up from seat even though it is not the time to move around

  • Difficulty waiting their turn when playing games with other children, yelling or getting angry while waiting

  • Interrupting others during conversations

  • Rushing into tasks without listening to directions

Toddlers frequently act impulsively. Children as young as two years old may begin to regulate their behaviors because they know that a certain behavior will result in certain actions from their behavior, however, self-regulation becomes more apparent and more developed between the ages of three and four. Children with ADHD may continue to have weak impulse control well into the teen years and even some adults with ADHD indicate they still have difficulty with impulse control.

Tips for Parents

Create positive reward programs. We have discussed this type of discipline several times. You can find out more about creating an effective reward/consequence program in the following posts:

Keep track of your child's impulsive behaviors. Are there certain triggers, such as your child becomes very impulsive when upset, frustrated or angry? Do you see impulsive behaviors increase during certain times of the day, for example, late in the afternoon when your child is getting hungry or is struggling with homework? Does he become more impulsive when over-stimulated? Understanding the triggers behind these behaviors can help you better monitor your child during specific times or situations and can help you teach him coping strategies for the trigger situation.

Understand that your child's lack of impulse control is not deliberate. He doesn't behave this way in an effort to annoy or anger you (although it can certainly seem that way.) Lack of impulse control is a symptom of ADHD, it is physiological, not intentional. However, this does not mean that your child cannot learn to better control impulses.

Catch your child acting appropriately. Look for times when your child thinks about the correct behavior. For example, you might see your child pick up a toy to throw it at a sibling and then hesitate. Quickly (before he throws it) let him know how much you appreciate that he took a moment to think about his actions. When first trying to work on curbing impulsive behavior, try to catch your child thinking before he does something as often as possible and give him immediate feedback. This helps him understand what the appropriate reaction is and he will try harder in order to please you.

Have clear, consistent rules. Children with ADHD need structure and clear expectations. Rather than using vague statements that are open to interpretation, such as "do your homework" provide your child with specific direction on how to behave, using "It is time to do your homework. I expect you to sit quietly and finish your math worksheet. When that is done, you can get up and stretch for 5 minutes before starting your other homework." By using this type of language, your child knows what to do and there is a clear measure of whether or not he followed your instructions.

Provide immediate feedback. It might not always be possible to let your child know when he does something right or wrong, but offer immediate feedback whenever possible. Children who have a hard time thinking through situations may also have a hard time connecting a situation with discipline that occurs hours later.

Remember, it is important to have an accurate diagnosis. If you are having ongoing problems with your child's behavior, at home and at school, and you don't see improvement no matter what you have tried, talk with your doctor about having a complete evaluation done. Because treatment is individual and specific to your child's needs, his diagnosis must be correct, accurate and up to date.


"A Behavioral Strategy to Control Impulsivity," Date Unknown, David Rabiner, Ph.D. Attention Research Update

"Impulsive Behavior," 2008, T.J. Zirpoli, Behavior Management: Applications for Teachers,

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.