Mastering Self-Control In Children: A Guide to Treating Impulsivity Effectively

Mastering Self Control In Children A Guide to Treating Impulsivity Effectively
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Having an impulsive child or teen is the challenge. For parents and educators, understanding and managing it is the goal. Having worked with so many impulsive teens and kids over the years, I know just hard impulsive behaviors can be on the individual and parent. Pumping the breaks doesn't always come easily for some and parents are often ill equipped to support impulsive behavior. Self regulation skills can be learned and it takes a lot of patience and reinforcement from parents.

Understanding why impulsive behaviors happen and how to treat impulsivity is key. I provide parents strategies that can be applied in daily life to channel impulsive urges constructively, while still maintaining self-esteem and reducing friction at home.

Understanding Impulsivity in Kids


Impulsive behavior is characterized by spontaneous and unplanned actions that occur without forethought of the potential consequences. Think of it as a knee-jerk reaction, a hasty response to a situation that contrasts with the more deliberate decision-making processes that most of us are used to.

Impulsivity should not be confused with compulsivity. While the former revolves around rapid, unthinking actions, the latter involves repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. They may seem similar, but they are different sides of the same coin.

Exploring the maze of impulsivity requires us to grasp the different shapes it can take, especially in the whirlwind of childhood and teen years. Are these spur-of-the-moment actions always loud and aggressive, or can they sneak up quietly? It's like trying to understand the moods of a child or teenager – unpredictable and often baffling.

Types of Impulsive Behaviors in Children and Teens

BLOG Mastering Self-Control In Children A Guide to Treating Impulsivity Effectively

Impulsive behaviors are not always as obvious as a sudden outburst or a harsh word. They can take the form of restlessness, making inappropriate remarks, or even impulsive touching of items or others. These behaviors are often observed in various mental health conditions, including mood disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), impulse control disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder.

Moreover, children and teenagers who display impulsive behavior are often significant risk-takers. They tend to act on a whim, without considering potential risks or consequences. This behavior can lead to dangerous situations, especially when it involves risky behaviors or substances.

The Impact of Impulsivity on Daily Life

The impact of impulsivity can ripple through all areas of life. Regular patterns of impulsive actions can disrupt daily activities and lead to strained or damaged relationships due to behaviors like angry outbursts or a lack of consideration for others’ feelings. In a school setting, impulsivity can result in difficulties in learning and maintaining friendships.

Even more concerning, impulsivity is linked to an array of behavioral disorders including hyperactivity, anxiety, alcohol abuse, overeating, and risk-taking, which can negatively impact an individual’s overall well-being. For parents, managing an impulsive child can be a frustrating journey due to problems with listening, task completion, and emotional reactivity.

But fear not, as there are effective strategies to help manage impulsivity both at home and in school. Next, we will look at these effective strategies for managing impulsivity.

Strategies for Managing Impulsivity at Home and School

Managing impulsivity may seem like an uphill battle, but there are effective strategies that can pave the path to progress. 

Here are some valuable strategies to support impulsivity:

  • Clear expectations
  • A structured environment
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Delayed gratification
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Modeling self-control

By utilizing these strategies, you can effectively manage impulsivity and make progress towards your goals.

While these strategies provide a general approach, it’s crucial to tailor them to the specific environment where they will be applied. The strategies employed at home may look slightly different from those used in a school setting. We will break down these differences further.

At School:

In a school setting, visual aids such as schedules, timers, or visual cues can be highly effective in keeping students on track and managing their time effectively when impulsive behavior is present. Breaking tasks into manageable steps can also prevent students from feeling overwhelmed and acting impulsively.

Moreover, here are some strategies that can help students stay focused and reduce impulsivity at school:

  • Allowing students to take frequent breaks during tasks or activities
  • Implementing behavior contracts that outline specific goals and expectations
  • Offering sensory supports
  • Collaborating with parents

These strategies can bolster the fight against impulsivity at school and counter negative consequences of the behaviors.

Mindfulness Techniques For the Child and Parent

Mindfulness practices encourage focusing on the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment, which enhances self-awareness and helps identify and name impulsive urges before they occur. Low impulse control can be tied to a somatic disconnect, so reconnecting to the body is an important part of self regulation.

Some mindfulness practices that can help reduce impulsive behavior include:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Mindful walking

These practices promote relaxation and mental clarity, which can aid in reducing impulsive behavior and difficulty controlling thoughts and emotions. Emotional self regulation is needed to counter emotional instability and for learning to occur.

Mindful breathing, in particular, can be useful in high-stress situations to regain focus and calm the nervous system, thus preventing impulsive reactions. These practices not only benefit the child dealing with impulsivity but can also be a source of relaxation and stress relief for the parents. I always recommend a 4-7-8 breath because it is an easy and effective way to reset the nervous system.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Can Help Children Connect to Behaviors

There are different types of therapies that can help children counter chronic impulsivity, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), play therapy, and behavioral therapy.

CBT is a type of talk therapy aimed at helping individuals understand and manage their behaviors by addressing the underlying thought processes. It’s a proven method to positively affect impulse control by enabling individuals to understand the connection between thoughts and behaviors and identify specific triggers.

Through CBT, patients can learn to control impulsive behaviors, rerouting their impulsive thoughts in a healthier and more controlled manner. This type of cognitive control can lead to significant improvements in impulsivity.

Developing Healthy Outlets

Another strategy to manage impulsivity involves developing healthy outlets for impulsive energy. Journaling or other writing activities can act as a constructive outlet for processing impulsive thoughts and emotions, allowing for reflection and healthier expression.

Physical exercise and sports can also be a healthy alternative to impulsive actions, helping to alleviate frustration and manage energy in a healthier way. Art and sensory activities can further help to reset the nervous system and provide a creative outlet for impulsive energy.

Infographics BLOG Mastering Self-Control In Children A Guide to Treating Impulsivity Effectively

Identifying the Root Causes of Impulsivity

Chronic impulsive behavior can stem from various factors, including genetic predispositions and environmental influences such as past trauma. During developmental stages such as childhood and adolescence, impulsivity can be more prominent due to the ongoing maturation of the brain, where emotional regions develop ahead of reasoning areas.

The failure of the brain’s inhibitory functions to effectively regulate decision-making processes can lead to impulsive actions. Other clinical issues such as:

  • ADHD
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Mood disorder
  • Anxiety

Genetic Factors

Genetics can play a significant role in impulsivity. Research has identified certain genes that are associated with a predisposition for impulsive behavior and reduced self-control. These findings contribute to a better understanding of the genetic factors influencing these traits. A family history of mental health conditions can also increase the likelihood of an individual developing impulse control disorders.

The gene HTR2A, often referred to as the ‘impulsivity gene’, has been specifically associated with impulsivity. Certain variants of this gene have been implicated in impulsivity, leading to reduced brain inhibitory control and impulsive decision-making.

Environmental Influences

Environmental conditions such as trauma, violence, neglect, or economic challenges during upbringing may lead to the development of impulse control disorders.

Other environmental factors include:

Factors such as stress at home, academic pressures, and even the lack of a consistent routine can spark impulsive behavior in children. These everyday challenges underscore the need for a supportive and understanding environment. By offering kids stability and the right coping tools, we can help them navigate their impulses more effectively.

Mental Health Conditions

Mental health conditions, including a mental health condition like bipolar disorder, have a significant impact on impulsivity. Negative impacts on the prefrontal cortex caused by various mental health disorders, including ADHD and bipolar disorder, can lead to impulsive actions. Such conditions, which can be considered as forms of mental illness, can lead to symptoms like chronic interrupting or extreme spending and substance abuse respectively.

Impulsivity can be symptomatic of several mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder, substance use disorders, and antisocial personality disorder. Identifying these conditions and seeking appropriate treatment is crucial in managing impulsivity effectively.

When to Consult a Mental Health Professional

Professional support should be sought for impulsive behavior when it stems from underlying mental health conditions, substance abuse, or unresolved trauma, particularly if it disrupts daily life or relationships. In the event of concerns about mental health conditions affecting impulsive behavior, it is important to seek professional assistance promptly.

If impulsive behavior continues despite practicing self-control techniques like mindfulness, avoiding triggers, and finding healthy outlets, it is advisable to seek professional help. Neurofeedback, PEMF, and magnesium can also be considered as treatments to help the brain regulate and reduce impulsive behaviors.

Next Steps in Managing Impulsivity

Impulsivity in children is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires a comprehensive understanding and a multi-pronged approach to manage effectively. With strategies ranging from establishing clear expectations and creating structured environments to implementing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and developing healthy outlets, managing impulsivity is a journey of patience, understanding, and resilience.

While the road can be challenging, I have created a wealth of resources for parents. The Natural ADHD Focus Formula Kit was designed for parents just like you who need clear information and actionable next steps. 

With the right approach and support, children struggling with impulsivity can learn to navigate their emotions and reactions more effectively, leading to a calmer home and more success at school. 

Key Takeaways

  • Impulsivity in children and teens can manifest in various behaviors ranging from restlessness to risk-taking, often observed in mental health conditions such as ADHD and mood disorders, and can negatively impact daily life and relationships.
  • Effective strategies for managing impulsivity include clear expectations, structured environments, relaxation techniques, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), with approaches varying between home and school settings.
  • Impulsive behavior can be influenced by genetic factors, environmental influences, mental health conditions, and may require professional intervention when it significantly disrupts daily functioning or relationships.

What is the difference between impulsivity and compulsivity?

Impulsivity involves spontaneous, rapid actions without deliberation, while compulsivity entails repetitive, ritualistic behaviors.

How can impulsivity manifest in children and teenagers?

Impulsivity in children and teenagers can manifest as restlessness, inappropriate remarks, and excessive risk-taking without considering consequences. It is important to address these behaviors early on to prevent potential negative outcomes.

Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) help manage impulsivity?

Yes, CBT can help manage impulsivity by helping individuals understand the connection between thoughts and behaviors and identify specific triggers. It is a proven method for positively affecting impulse control.

How can genetics influence impulsivity?

Genetics can influence impulsivity through certain identified genes, such as the HTR2A gene, which is linked to impulsive behavior and reduced self-control.

When should professional help be sought for impulsivity?

You should seek professional help for impulsive behavior if it is linked to mental health conditions, substance abuse, or unresolved trauma, and if it significantly impacts your daily life or relationships. Don't hesitate to reach out for support if you're experiencing these issues.

Dr. Roseann is a mental health expert in ADHD who is frequently in the media:

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Licensed Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of media outlets including The Mel Robbins Show, CBS, NBC, PIX11 NYC, Today, FORBES, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, Women’s Day, Healthline, CNET, Parade Magazine and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.

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She coined the terms, “Re-entry panic syndrome” and “eco-anxiety” and is a frequent contributor to media on mental health. 

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge has three decades of experience in working with children, teens and their families with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, concussion, dyslexia and learning disability, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and mood disorder, Lyme Disease, and PANS/PANDAS using science-backed natural mental health solutions such as supplements, magnesium, nutrition, QEEG Brain maps, neurofeedback, PEMF, psychotherapy and other non-medication approaches. 

She is the author of three bestselling books, It’s Gonna Be OK!: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Health, The Teletherapy Toolkit, and Brain Under Attack. Dr. Roseann is known for offering a message of hope through science-endorsed methods that promote a calm brain. 

Her trademarked BrainBehaviorResetⓇ Program and It’s Gonna be OK!Ⓡ Podcast has been a cornerstone for thousands of parents facing mental health, behavioral or neurodevelopmental challenges.

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health, Neurotastic™Brain Formulas and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional (CIMHP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF).

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