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ADHD Signs and Symptoms: Impulsivity

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

You may notice the word "impulsivity" is not included in the ADHD diagnostic label. Nonetheless, it is a symptom of ADHD. It should be noted that poor impulse control is a symptom of many psychiatric disorders. Therefore, it is not a characteristic unique to ADHD.

When impulsivity is paired with hyperactivity, a person appears to act without prior thought or intention. In a related manner, people with impulse control problems often fail to consider the consequences of their actions. As a result, impulsive behaviors can create difficulties in relationships; poor work or school performance; and, poor decision-making. Impulsivity can also lead to actions that are intrusive, rude, and even dangerous. For example, a child may fail to consider what will happen when they jump off a ledge to catch a ball. Clearly, impulsivity problems can result in difficulties in all areas of someone's life. sad girl Many experts consider impulsivity (and associated intolerance of delay) to be the most significant source of problems for adolescents and adults with ADHD. This is due to the negative effect of impulsivity on relationships. Examples of this effect include the tendency to express thoughts and emotions without any sort of censorship; and, acting without regard to how such behavior may affect others. Children who are very impulsive may take away another child's toy, or hit others when they get upset. Their impulsivity may make it hard for them to wait for things they want, or to take their turn in games. They often choose to do things that are immediately rewarding; rather than waiting for a more valuable, lasting benefit in the future. This is called delayed gratification.

Symptoms of Impulsivity during infancy can include:

  • Frequent crying and colic (painful bowel problems);
  • Frequent infections, more allergies.

Symptoms of Impulsivity during the preschool years can include:

  • Extreme excitability;
  • Gross/fine motor difficulties (awkward, clumsy);
  • Fearlessness, endangering self or others;
  • Low frustration tolerance; and,
  • Peer problems due to impatience.

Symptoms of Impulsivity during the elementary school years can include:

  • Social immaturity;
  • Frequent arguments with caregivers and peers;
  • Disregard for socially-accepted behavioral expectations;
  • Requiring more supervision than average;
  • Inconsistently meeting responsibilities or completing chores;
  • Continually striving to be the center of attention;
  • Answering a question before the speaker has finished;
  • Failing to await one's turn;
  • Interrupting the activities of others at inappropriate times; and,
  • Poor peer relationships.

Symptoms of Impulsivity during adolescence can include:

  • Continued poor peer relationships;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Discipline problems;
  • Continued frequent arguments;
  • Drug and alcohol abuse;
  • Risk-taking behavior; and
  • Impulsive spending, leading to financial difficulties.

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