Impulse Control Disorder Signs & Symptoms

Not everyone experiences impulse control the same way. Understanding the signs, symptoms and effects of impulse control is an important step toward recovery for your child.

Understanding Impulse Control

Learn about impulse control

Impulse control disorders are a group of mental health conditions that are characterized by a pervasive inability to control one’s thoughts, behaviors, and/or emotions. Those who are plagued by these types of mental illnesses often strongly desire to grasp a sense of control over these aspects of their lives, but are incapable of doing so due to the presence of intrusive obsessions, compulsions, and preoccupations with certain impulsive behaviors. As a result the adverse consequences that come about as a direct result of the engagement in such impulsive behaviors, children and adolescents who are suffering impulse control disorders experience immense disruption in most, if not all, areas of their lives. The most common forms of impulse control disorders that afflict youth include:

Pyromania: Pyromania refers to the behavior of deliberately and purposefully setting things on fire. The participation in these behaviors is typically done in order to achieve a sense of pleasure or satisfaction that results from the relief of tension that has built up prior to engaging in the act.

Kleptomania: Kleptomania refers to the compulsive, uncontrollable, and repetitive urge to steal and take things that belong to others. Despite knowing that the behavior is wrong, and despite knowing that one does not truly need the items of which he or she is taking, young people with this type of impulse control disorder are incapable of resisting the urge to engage in this behavior.

Intermittent explosive disorder: Also known as IED, intermittent explosive disorder is a type of impulse control disorder that elicits recurrent behavioral outbursts that can be physical and/or emotional in nature. Such outbursts occur despite the lack of provocation and can include things such as damaging property, being violent against others, or presenting with pervasive hostility that instigates violence.

Compulsive sexual behaviors: Compulsive sexual behaviors refer to the intrusive urge and compulsion to engage in various sexual behaviors despite the fact that harm to oneself or others can occur as a result. Examples of compulsive sexual behaviors can include promiscuity, voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishism, frequently watching pornography, or excessively masturbating.

Fortunately, there are viable treatment options available for children and adolescents who are suffering from impulse control disorders that can help learn to overcome their compulsions and control their impulsions, greatly enhancing their overall quality of life.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for impulse control

Research has indicated that the onset of impulse control disorders can be attributed to both genetic and environmental components, as well as the presence of other possible risk factors. Such causes and risk factors are discussed briefly in the following:

Genetic: There is believed to be a strong heritability present in the development of impulse control disorders. Studies have shown that children and adolescents who have family members, especially first-degree biological family members, who have suffered from impulse control disorders are at heightened risk of experiencing the onset of such at some point themselves.

Environmental: There are certain environmental factors that can contribute to the onset of, or exacerbation of, symptoms of impulse control disorders. Children and adolescents who are chronically exposed to violence, crime, or substance abuse are more vulnerable to developing an impulse control disorder than are those young people who do not have similar exposures. Additionally, youth who have been the victims of abuse and/or neglect, or who have experienced a significant trauma, are believed to be more vulnerable to developing the symptoms of this mental health condition.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of impulse control disorders or other mental health conditions
  • Pre-existing mental illness
  • Personal and/or family history of substance abuse
  • Exposure to violence and aggression
  • Inconsistent parenting / lack of parental involvement
  • Being the victim of abuse and/or neglect
  • Experiencing a trauma or series of traumas

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms for impulse control

The signs and symptoms that are indicative of the presence of an impulse control disorder will inevitably vary from person to person. The specific type of impulse control disorder that one is suffering from, the length of time that he or she has been struggling with the disorder, and the support network that one has available to him or her will all play a role in which symptoms will be displayed by children and adolescents who are suffering from impulse control disorders. Examples of some such symptoms may include the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Participating in high-risk behaviors
  • Acting impulsively
  • Explosive, unprovoked, angry outbursts
  • Destroying property
  • Purposely starting fires / playing with fire
  • Stealing
  • Lying
  • Promiscuity

Physical symptoms:

  • Burn marks resulting from playing with fire
  • Physical injuries resulting from engaging in aggressive or violent behaviors
  • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases resulting from partaking in risky sexual behaviors

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Impatient
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Obsessive and/or ritualistic thinking patterns
  • Racing thoughts
  • Concentration difficulties

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of remorse and regret
  • Heightened feelings of anxiety
  • Guilty feelings
  • Sudden, abrupt fluctuations in mood
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Low sense of self-worth
  • Heightened feelings of depression
  • Periods of emotional detachment
  • Periods of emotional excitability
  • Excessive agitation and irritability


Effects of impulse control

As a result of the lack of control that a person with an impulse control disorder has over his or her thoughts and behaviors, a number of detrimental effects have the potential of occurring. When appropriate treatment interventions are not sought and implemented, youth are susceptible to experiencing adverse effects that include, but are not limited to:

  • Onset of symptoms synonymous with other mental health conditions
  • School refusal
  • Academic failure
  • Problematic behaviors at school, which result in suspension or expulsion
  • Use and abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Physical injury as the result of participating in risky behaviors
  • Contracting sexually transmitted diseases as the result of engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Inability to develop and sustain healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Low sense of self-worth
  • Peer rejection
  • Lacking the ability to successfully obtain and maintain future employment
  • Interaction with the legal system as the result of partaking in criminal behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Impulse control and co-occurring disorders

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for children and adolescents who are suffering from impulse control disorders to also suffer from symptoms of other mental health conditions. These disorders can bring about symptoms of other mental illnesses or, conversely, other mental illnesses can bring about the onset of these types of disorders. Examples of disorders that have been cited as co-occurring with impulse control disorders include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Substance use disorders

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