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Impulsivity in Children - Symptoms and Treatment

written by: Sharon Dominica • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/19/2011

Children who are impulsive tend to act without thinking, blurt out things, and are easily angered. Impulsivity is one of the symptoms of ADHD, but it can also occur in children with sensory processing disorders or it may be an isolated personality trait.

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    Impulsivity in Children: Symptoms

    Impulsivity is seen in 4%- 12 % of American children. A study carried out by Aremou Oyesoji in Nigeria in 2010, found significant impulsivity in 28%- 30% of adolescents

    Impulsivity is like a chemical accelerant that speeds up reactions to events. Children who are impulsive tend to do things without thinking them through.

    Academically they don’t perform as well as others because they blurt answers without thinking, begin test questions without waiting and do not plan their answers well. They take less time and effort to solve problems. They may interrupt the class by asking irrelevant questions and making tactless observations.

    Emotional outbursts are frequent in children who are impulsive. They tend to be moody and find it difficult to keep their powerful emotions in check. Fights, aggressiveness, and temper tantrums are frequent.

    Impulsivity can also have an impact on a child’s ability to make and build relationships. Other children may keep a distance because of their moodiness or aggressiveness. They have difficulty waiting for their turn and often interrupt conversations. Their temper tantrums result in difficult relationships with their parents and teachers. These children are often misunderstood and alone.

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    Impulsivity in Children: Treatment

    Impulsivity in children is treated with both medication and behavior management. Stimulant medication like Ritalin, which is also used in the treatment of ADHD, is often prescribed. A doctor may try different medications, doses and different combinations to find what works best for the child. Nutritional supplements may also be beneficial. However, behavior management is usually the first line of treatment. Psychologists, special educators and family members work together to help the child overcome the symptoms of impulsivity.

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    Impulsivity in Children: Behavioral Management

    As an adult it can be hard to manage an impulsive child. However, here are some tips that can help you to support the child and build a positive relationship with him or her. Impulsivity is like a blindfold which narrows a child’s perception. Thus it interferes with their ability to see things logically. Being harsh with them or threatening a punishment if they don’t listen often makes things worse. Instead the child should be approached in a non threatening manner. Avoid situations where you say things like “either sit down here or you will be grounded for a week.”

    Provide opportunities for healthy impulsive discharge. Martial arts have been found to be effective in decreasing impulsive behavior and increasing self control. Other sports and games, listening to music and physical activity can help prevent a build up of energy.

    Teaching relaxation techniques can help a child cope with impulsivity, especially their anger and aggression. You can teach the child to take deep breaths and cool down before they react. Providing positive feedback when the child deals with a situation well, can also help to encourage the child and motivate behavior change.

    In many situations, impulsive children make bad decisions. But as an adult, telling them they are wrong and explaining why something else is right, may not work. Instead, listening to them, and their reasons for a decision can help you suggest alternatives in a way that they can understand, and that will slowly shape their behavior.

    Be specific about how the child is to behave. Saying “stand in line” is better than saying “be good in the playground”. Keep punishments short and appropriate, and let the child know that he or she is responsible for their own actions. Token systems can be used to decrease the occurrence of problem behaviors. Go easy on minor mistakes, and provide additional support to deal with new situations. Understand that the child too is going through a difficult time and needs your support.

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    References:

    ADDitude Editors. (2009). School Behavior Tips: Impulse Control for ADHD Children. Retrieved from AdditudeMag.com: http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/1037-2.html

    Brock Eide, F. E. (2011). Hyperactivity, Impulsivity, and Sensory Processing. Retrieved from NeuroLearning.com: http://www.neurolearning.com/Library/component/content/article/12-sensory-processing/6-

    Cooper, E. K. (2005). The impact of martial arts on Inattention, Hyperactivitiy, Impulsivity and Aggressiveness in ADHD children. Ann Arbor: ProQuest Information and Learning Company.

    Melinda Smith, E. J.-G. (2010, January). ADD / ADHD in Children. Retrieved from Help Guide.org: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/adhd_add_signs_symptoms.htm

    National Institute of Mental Health. (2008). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

    Oyesoji, A. A. (2010, September 1). Prevalence of impulsivity among junior secondary students in Lagos, Nigeria. Ife Psychologia.

    Richfield, D. S. (n.d.). Helping Your Impulsive ADHD Child. Retrieved from Children's Disabilities Information: http://www.childrensdisabilities.info/adhd/helping-impulsive.html


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