Impulse control issues refer to the difficulty some people have in stopping themselves from engaging in certain behaviors. Common examples include:

  • gambling
  • stealing
  • aggressive behavior toward others

A lack of impulse control may be associated with certain neurological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It may also be related to an intersecting group of conditions known as impulse control disorders (ICDs).

Such disorders can have a profoundly negative effect on quality of life, but there are strategies and medical treatments that can help.

Impulse control issues can vary from person to person, but a common theme is that the impulses are considered extreme and are difficult to control.

Most symptoms begin during adolescence, but it’s also possible for ICDs to not show up until adulthood.

Some of the most common symptoms seen in all age groups include:

Symptoms in adults

Adults with impulse control behaviors might also have behaviors like:

Symptoms in children

Children with impulse control issues may also have more problems at school, both socially and academically.

They may be at a higher risk of having classroom outbursts, failing to get their schoolwork done, and fighting with their peers.

While the exact cause of ICDs isn’t known, it’s thought that impulse control issues are related to chemical changes in the frontal lobe of the brain. These changes involve dopamine in particular.

The frontal lobe is known for controlling impulses. If there are changes in it, you may be at risk for impulse control issues.

ICDs may also be related to a group of what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) calls disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders. Examples of these disorders include:

  • Conduct disorder. People with this disorder exhibit anger and aggression that can pose a danger to other people, animals, and property.
  • Intermittent explosive disorder. This disorder causes angry and aggressive outbursts at home, school, and work.
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). A person with ODD may become easily angered, defiant, and argumentative, while also displaying vindictive behaviors.

Other related conditions

Impulse control issues may also be seen alongside the following conditions:

ICDs are more prominent in males. Other risk factors include:

  • a history of abuse
  • poor treatment from parents during childhood
  • parents with substance misuse issues

While treatment is crucial in managing impulse control issues, there are also ways you can cope with these issues.

Helping your child cope

If you’re a parent with a child who’s struggling with impulse control, talk to your doctor about your child’s challenges and how to help. A referral to a psychotherapist trained to work with children may be appropriate as well.

You can also help your child by:

  • modeling healthy behaviors and setting a good example
  • setting limits and sticking to them
  • establishing a routine so your child knows what to expect
  • making sure you praise them when they exhibit good behavior

Tips for adults

Adults with impulse control issues may have difficulty controlling their behaviors in the heat of the moment. Afterward, they may feel extremely guilty and ashamed. This can lead to a cycle of anger toward others.

It’s important to talk to someone you trust about your struggles with impulse control.

Having an outlet can help you work through your behaviors while also decreasing the risk of depression, anger, and irritability.

Therapy is a central treatment for ICDs and impulse control associated with other underlying conditions. Examples may include:

  • group therapy for adults
  • play therapy for children
  • individual psychotherapy in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other type of talk therapy
  • family therapy or couples therapy

Your doctor may also prescribe antidepressants or mood stabilizers to help balance out the chemicals in your brain.

There are numerous options, and it may take time to determine which medication and which dosage work best for you.

Treating any existing mental health or neurological conditions may also help improve symptoms of poor impulse control.

If you have Parkinson’s disease, your doctor may offer a Questionnaire for Impulsive-Compulsive Disorders in Parkinson’s Disease to try to identify these behaviors, if they develop.

It’s important to contact your doctor right away if you suspect you or your child is displaying any signs of impulse control issues. The sooner you seek help, the better the outcome is likely to be.

An immediate evaluation is necessary for any issues with school, work, or the law that may arise from acting out on impulses.

If you feel you can’t control your impulsive behaviors, and they’re negatively affecting your life and relationships, reach out for help.

Call your child’s doctor right away if they’re harming or acting aggressively toward people or animals.

To better assess impulse control issues, your doctor will ask about your or your child’s symptoms, as well as the intensity and frequency of the outbursts.

They might also recommend a psychological evaluation to determine any underlying mental health conditions that could be contributing to the behavior.

If you have an existing neurological disorder, contact your doctor if you’re experiencing new symptoms or a lack of improvement in impulse control. They may need to make adjustments to your current treatment plan.

Impulse control issues are quite complex and can be hard to prevent and manage.

However, working with your doctor and getting a better understanding of the signs and risk factors involved can help you find the right treatment to improve your quality of life.

Since ICDs tend to develop during childhood, you shouldn’t wait to talk to your doctor.

It can be difficult to talk about a lack of impulse control, but getting help can be beneficial in reducing negative effects on school, work, and relationships.