Impulsiveness in Children: How Much is Too Much?


  1. What is impulsivity?
  2. What does an impulsive child mean?
  3. What is an example of impulsiveness?
  4. At what age do kids get impulse control?
  5. What is delayed gratification?
  6. What is impulsiveness a symptom of?

Acts of impulsiveness can be really exciting, creative and full of surprise! 😲 The freedom of acting without thinking things through can be extremely liberating and sometimes the best decision you’ll ever make. The fact is, though, that as someone matures, an impulsive person is less likely to act on impulse because of our knowledge of the world and how it works. Therefore, when children act spontaneously, it is often without emotional intelligence it can have as many negative effects as it has positive.child thinking about decision

#1 What is impulsivity?


According to the Cambridge Dictionary, impulsivity and impulsiveness is ‘behaviour in which you do things suddenly without any planning and without considering the effects they may have.’ 📘


#2 What does an impulsive child mean?


Impulsive behaviour in a child can mean a variety of things.

On one end of the scale, a lot of children will act without thinking. They lack the emotional intelligence, life experience and maturity to predict the results of their impulsive behaviour. This could be from saying something that will offend others, disrupting class activities or running into a road to get a ball without thinking of the consequences.

We’re sure any parent has had to deal with a challenging toddler and their tantrums. Pushing boundaries and making good decisions come with the territory and the good news is, that most children will learn from their mistakes. The bad news is, if you are a helicopter parent, giving your child the freedom to learn from their mistakes will be no mean feat, but it will be worth it in the end. 💪

On the other end of the scale, it can be more problematic. Impulsiveness in a child can be a sign of ADHD. Other ADHD symptoms to watch out for are:

  •       Problems with sitting still or hyperactivity
  •       A lack of concentration 
  •       Interruption
  •       Impatience
  •       Impulsiveness

If you think this might be your child, early intervention is key and there is a lot of help out there if you need it. There’s no need to suffer in silence.😀

It can also be a sign of an impulsivity disorder like Borderline Personality Disorder, which is the most commonly recognised personality disorder affecting someone's mood and how they interact with others. Signs of Borderline Personality Disorder to watch out for are:

  •       Sudden and extreme anger 
  •       Self-destructive, hyperactive or impulsive behaviour
  •       Self-harm
  •       Fear of being abandoned
  •       Extreme mood swings 
  •       Dangerous or unhealthy habits

Like with ADHD, early intervention is advised. Here are some tips to help your child.

Another reason for impulsiveness can be Antisocial Personality Disorder. This type of disorder can be quite challenging for all involved. Symptoms of this include:

  •       A disregard for socially-acceptable behaviour
  •       Sudden and extreme anger 
  •       Blaming others for their own behaviour
  •       Problems forming meaningful relationships
  •       Lack of empathy
  •       Law-breaking 
  •       Impulsive decisions
  •       Manipulation or exploitation of others
  •       Bullying others at school

If you have a child who may have a more serious problem with impulsiveness, child counselling is a positive place to start. It will also give you as a parent the support you need to help your child and to deal with the situation they’re faced with. 

Impulsive children can become difficult teenagers who skip class and have problems making friends. If this behaviour is ignored it can lead to school failure and a lack of opportunity in the future so we think it’s worth exploring all avenues to try to help your child manage their behaviour while they’re young. 

Meditation is a good thing to practice with your child regardless of the level of impulsiveness they may be portraying. Every child can benefit from some quiet time to process their emotions away from the confusion, noise and stress of everyday life. In fact, adults would benefit from this too! 👏


#3 What is an example of impulsiveness?


Functional impulsiveness

Dysfunctional impulsiveness

Seeing someone in trouble in the sea, diving in to help them and saving their life. 

Frequently interrupting people when they speak.

Agreeing to do a parachute jump and gaining a real sense of achievement and adrenaline. 

Snatching things out of a person’s hand and not caring about the feelings of the other person involved.

Heading a ball and scoring a goal. 

Pushing to get to the front of a queue.

Grabbing someone who is about to walk into the path of a car on a road. 

Excessive talking when the teacher is trying to lead the lesson.

Suddenly booking a holiday you can’t afford but feeling glad you did because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. 

Deliberately breaking something when you don’t get your own way.

Saying yes to a job immediately and grasping the opportunity that you might not get again. 

Saying mean things to a person when we feel hurt.


As the table shows, functional impulsiveness seems to have a certain maturity and emotional intelligence to it whereas dysfunctional impulsiveness seems to be common in children, who as a result of their age and lack of experience, aren’t as aware of the acceptable social behaviour. As previously stated, this can be a process of learning from making mistakes or can be a sign of something more serious. 


#4 At what age do kids get impulse control?


Children learn to control their impulsiveness. In other words, through trial and error, they learn to self-regulate. It is thought that this starts happening as early as three years old in some children’s stages of development. Before this time, it was common to see children react to certain situations by hitting, shouting and biting

Naturally, every child is different and there isn’t an age where you can say all children have gained control of their impulsiveness. Generally speaking, however, the developmental period between the ages of 18 months and four years old is when the most learning happens in this respect. By the time most children reach four, they should have developed some skills in managing their impulsive behaviour. 

As a parent, you can guide them along this journey. Let’s take the example of snatching something like a toy from another child. You might get involved to discuss the feelings of the child whose toy your child has taken. Encouraging your child to consider the needs of others is the first step to your child regulating their own behaviour and therefore acting with less impulsivity. They now have a choice between snatching something they want or expressing their frustration and anger using words instead. This act helps your child develop empathy, problem-solving and self-control. 💪

Research shows that children's ability to control their impulsiveness early in life can affect their ability to do so throughout their lives.

The ability to control a child’s verbal impulsive behaviour comes later. We’re sure you’ve all had the embarrassing experience of your child saying something at the wrong moment for all to hear.  Most children will start to understand that they can’t just say what’s on their minds out loud around the age of eight. If they are still behaving this way at ten, it’s likely they’ll be getting into trouble at school. It would be a good idea at this stage to ensure you have good communication with your child’s teacher to understand your child’s behaviour and how it can best be tackled.


#5 What is delayed gratification?


Delayed gratification is the ability to not act on your impulsiveness in order to get a better reward for waiting. The Marshmallow Experiment, first published in n1972, is something you could try with your child. It works like this:

  1. Offer a marshmallow to your child and put it on the table in front of them. The best age is between four and five years old.
  2.  Say you’re going to leave the room and if the child doesn’t eat the marshmallow before you return, they will get a second marshmallow.
  3. However, tell the child that if they choose to eat the marshmallow while you’re away, they don’t get a second one.
  4. Leave the room and return 15 minutes later.

The researchers followed the children they did the marshmallow experiment on for over 40 years. What they found was that those who had been able to wait for the second marshmallow became more successful in life. In simple terms, if you don’t act on impulse and delay gratification, the rewards will be bigger. 🏆

You can practice this with your child in everyday life. For example, you can have a biscuit when you finish your dinner. Or, you can do your homework and then watch TV.  Or you can offer pocket money as a reward for helping out around the house. 


#6 What is impulsiveness a symptom of?


There are many symptoms of impulsiveness as we have already discussed, from hyperactivity to being disruptive in class, and being unable to concentrate for any length of time. By analysing this behaviour further, you can understand whether this is a part of childhood development or a sign of something you should get specialist help for.

Whatever the answer, the worst thing you can do as a parent is ignoring it. Knowledge is power after all. And remember, impulsive behaviour isn’t always a bad thing. It can be positive:  It can get you your dream job because you said yes immediately, it can save someone’s life because you acted without delay when others couldn’t and it can mean you scored the winning goal in a competition because you put the success of the game above you throwing yourself into the air without thinking about how you were going to land. 

As a result, while keeping your child safe from harm and teaching them to self-regulate is indeed important, so is giving them a certain amount of freedom to experiment. 😊