Impulsive Behavior: What to Know

Medically Reviewed By Yalda Safai, MD, MPH

Impulsivity is a tendency to take action without thinking. A small amount of impulsive behavior can be typical, especially for children. However, extensive or frequent impulsive behavior may suggest an underlying health condition, such as ADHD or a concussion. Impulsive behavior itself is not a condition or diagnosis. Instead, it may be a symptom or sign of an underlying condition.

Still, it is standard for everyone to experience a small amount of impulsivity occasionally. This may be particularly true for children and adolescents, whose brains are still developing.

If impulsive behavior is very frequent or is starting to have negative effects on life, however, it may be helpful to talk with a doctor. They can identify whether any underlying conditions may be contributing to impulsivity and help you access treatment if necessary.

This article explains impulsive behavior examples, symptoms, and underlying causes. It also discusses treatment options and some frequently asked questions about impulsive behavior.

Impulsive behavior symptoms in adults and children

A child lies upside down on a seat and laughs.
Photography by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Impulsive behavior can refer to taking actions on a whim or without an appropriate amount of:

  • planning or forethought
  • consideration of consequences or risk
  • reflection

Other signs of impulsivity include inappropriate behaviors, behaviors that carry risk, and choosing short-term benefits over long-term outcomes.

Impulsive behavior examples include:

  • overindulging or lack of control in actions such as spending money, eating, or gambling
  • outbursts of intense emotion or feelings, such as impatience or anger, that sometimes may be out of proportion
  • oversharing or speaking without thinking
  • jumping to conclusions
  • reacting with physical violence
  • being destructive, such as with your own or someone else’s things
  • carrying out self-harm, such as when having strong feelings of sadness or anger
  • escalating confrontations or problems
  • starting over or turning over a new leaf very often, such as joining and quitting a group or looking for a fresh start
  • engaging in sex without using contraception or barrier protection

Impulsive behaviors are different from compulsive behaviors. With compulsive behaviors, a person may recognize a behavior is atypical. Yet compulsions may cause the person to feel compelled to take that action, even if they do not necessarily want to.

Impulsive behavior examples in children

Some impulsive behavior examples in children include:

  • not being aware of danger, ignoring danger, or taking physical risks, such as running into roads without looking or climbing dangerous objects
  • difficulty waiting for their turn, such as ignoring turns or taking what they want anyway
  • difficulty sitting still
  • difficulty understanding the consequences of actions or thinking about chains of events
  • interrupting conversations
  • displaying physical behavior, such as:
    • pushing or throwing when upset
    • running into things or people
    • knocking things down or being destructive, even if accidentally

Some of these behaviors can be appropriate to a child’s developmental stage. However, talk with a doctor if you believe that:

  • Their impulsive behaviors lead to danger or risk.
  • The behaviors are not improving with age, or the child doesn’t seem to be learning from the consequences.
  • The behaviors develop suddenly or get worse.
  • The behaviors are affecting the quality of life or becoming very frequent.
  • The child or adolescent experiences other behavioral or mental symptoms.

Sometimes, higher levels of impulsive behaviors may cause a child or adolescent to seem younger than their actual age.

Causes of impulsive behavior

Someone may show impulsive behavior for many reasons.

In children, it can sometimes be due to expected personal differences in maturity and development. This is because children may develop Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source impulse management skills at different times. Brief periods of impulsivity in children may also be due to:

  • tiredness
  • anxiousness
  • overstimulation

Usually, as children and adolescents grow, their impulse management skills improve.

However, impulsive behavior may relate to certain mental and behavioral conditions if:

  • The behavior is frequent.
  • It is difficult to manage impulses or improve impulsivity.
  • You experience other symptoms of a mental or behavioral condition.

Below are some conditions that may lead to impulsivity.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that can lead Trusted Source National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Governmental authority Go to source to symptoms of:

It can be hard for people with ADHD to stay focused or manage impulses.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a condition that affects a person’s mood. Often, bipolar disorder causes someone’s mood to go from one extreme to the other.

Symptoms include:

Learn more about bipolar disorder, including its symptoms.

Antisocial personality disorder

Also known as sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder can cause behavior that is:

  • reckless or impulsive
  • irresponsible
  • manipulative or deceitful
  • unremorseful

Borderline personality disorder

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition that impairs the ability to manage your emotions.

It can lead to symptoms and effects such as:

  • impulsivity
  • intense changes in mood
  • low self-esteem
  • impaired relationships

Read more about borderline personality disorder.

Intermittent explosive disorder

Intermittent explosive disorder is a condition that can cause Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source impulsive and frequent outbursts of anger, violence, and aggression.

These outbursts may be sudden. Outbursts can also cause the person and others around them distress.

Medications and substance use

Research from 2022 and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Trusted Source Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Governmental authority Go to source have linked some of the following medications to impulsive behavior:

  • aripiprazole (Abilify, Abilify Maintena, Aristada), a type of antipsychotic medication
  • dopamine receptor agonists, which include some types of Parkinson’s disease medications
  • some ADHD medications known as psychostimulants
  • dopaminergic antidepressants, including dopamine reuptake inhibitors such as bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyvan) and clomipramine (Anafranil)

The use of substances, such as alcohol and illegal drugs, may also lead to impulsive behavior, 2019 research Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source suggests. However, in some cases, impulsivity may contribute to a substance use disorder developing in the first place.

Brain injury or stroke

Sometimes, brain damage or injury can cause changes in behavior. This may include impulsivity, or symptoms such as lack of judgment or attention.

Examples of conditions that can lead to brain injury or damage include concussion, stroke, and tumors.

Learn more about the symptoms and treatment of concussion and stroke.

Other disorders

The following conditions may also lead to impulsive behaviors:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder: may cause defiance and irritability
  • Eating disorders: caused by Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source impulsive or obsessive thoughts related to eating
  • Dementia: can cause Trusted Source International Journal of Obesity Peer reviewed journal Go to source behavioral and psychological symptoms
  • Trichotillomania: causes the impulse to pull out your hairs
  • Kleptomania: causes an urge to steal things
  • Pyromania: causes the impulse to start fires
  • Histrionic personality disorder: may lead Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source to exaggerated emotions and actions
  • Narcissistic personality disorder: causing Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source a heightened sense of self-importance
  • Addiction: such as Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source to substances or activities like gambling

Sometimes, these conditions may occur alongside other mental health disorders, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Diagnosing impulsive behavior

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They may also ask questions about your behavior and relationships.

If your doctor suspects that an underlying health condition may be causing impulsive behavior, they may refer you to a specialist or order further tests.

Tests can include:

  • physical exams or imaging scans to rule out any physical conditions
  • questionnaires or interviews about your symptoms and feelings
  • interviews with people who are close or significant to you, such as partners or teachers
  • behavioral reviews, such as observing play in children

Treating impulsive behavior

If you require treatment for impulsive behavior, options may vary based on the underlying cause.

Generally, treatment for mental health conditions includes medication and therapy.

Types of therapy that may be helpful include:

  • counseling and psychotherapy, such as behavioral therapy
  • occupational therapy to help you adapt at home, school, or work
  • parent or caregiver training
  • social skills training

Learn about treatment options for substance use disorder.

Talk with your doctor for personal advice if you have questions about the treatment options available for your condition.

If impulsive behaviors aren’t linked to an underlying condition, but you still want to improve your impulse management, it may help to:

  • evaluate scenarios step by step to practice spotting consequences and risks
  • practice waiting and deliberating before making big decisions
  • keep a diary of your main symptoms to identify your impulsive behaviors, such as in spending money or quitting activities
  • deliberately make it more difficult to indulge in your go-to impulsive behaviors, such as banning gambling websites on your devices
  • contact your doctor with any concerns, even if you don’t believe you have an underlying condition

Summary

Impulsive behavior isn’t a condition itself. A limited amount of impulsive behavior can be expected occasionally, especially in children.

However, some underlying mental health and brain conditions may lead to frequent, disruptive, or harmful symptoms of impulsiveness.

Conditions that may cause impulsive behavior include ADHD, personality disorders, and trichotillomania. Conditions like addiction, dementia, and brain injury may also lead to impulsivity as a symptom.

Treatment can depend on the underlying cause but may include medication or therapy.

Contact your doctor if you have questions or concerns about impulsivity.

Was this helpful?
2

Medical Reviewer: Yalda Safai, MD, MPH
Last Review Date: 2023 Aug 4
View All Mental Health and Behavior Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.