Some people find it difficult to stop themselves from engaging in certain behaviors— this is what it means to have impulse control issues. Many associate children with struggling with impulse control, but adults and teenagers can, too.

The diagnosis of ADHD involves a struggle with impulse control, and there are some other impulse-control disorders, like Kleptomania (the inability to refrain from stealing), Pyromania (the incessant urge to start fires), Intermittent Explosive Disorder (distinguished by an overwhelming urge to act on aggressive impulses), Trichotillomania (pulling one’s hair), Conduct Disorder (characterized by behavior that repeatedly breaks social rules), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (which is similar to Conduct Disorder).

People who struggle with impulse control disorders often find themselves in trouble with the law, have a tough time maintaining good relationships, and get in trouble a lot at school, home, and work. They also tend to have financial problems, unhealthy lifestyles, low self-esteem, and struggle to make healthy decisions. It is not something that needs to define a person, though.

With time, a teachable and humble spirit, and endurance, people can learn to manage their impulses and live successful, full, and happy lives. This article will briefly discuss the signs and symptoms and impulse control problems, the causes and risk factors, simple ways to manage impulse control issues, and some potential treatment options.

Signs and Symptoms of Impulse Control Problems

  • Excessive lying
  • Self-harming
  • Explosive or violent outbursts against others or property
  • Extreme defiance
  • Risky and unsafe behaviors and activities
  • Stealing
  • Excessive spending
  • Binge-eating
  • Excessive talking
  • Setting fires

Causes and Risk Factors

Though the cause is not known, children who are raised in homes where there is any kind of abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, domestic), neglect, attachment issues, poor emotional management or connection, or ineffective discipline strategies can come to deal with impulse control issues. Kids who are bullied or mistreated at school or begin spending time with the wrong types of people can also struggle with it, too.

People who are diagnosed with eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and anxiety disorders can also have more impulse control problems. A history of any substance abuse or actively using substances can lead to impulse control issues because substances hinder the decision-making processes in the brain.

Simple Ways to Manage Impulse Control

Learn to say “no”

“No” is one of the hardest words to say for someone who struggles with impulse control. They see something they want to buy, and they buy it. They see something yummy to eat, and they eat it. Someone (a bad or good influence) asks or tells them to do something, they do it. They make decisions without thinking, and they do things that are extremely risky and sometimes harmful.

Practicing the art of saying “no” to oneself and even to others (who are pressuring someone to make unwise decisions) is the most important skill to learn. Start with unimportant things— “No, I don’t need this new dress,” “No I don’t need this third cup of coffee.” It is possible; a person simply needs determination. This helps to build self-control.

Walk away from the situation

If the situation is unwise, unhealthy, dangerous, or could cause harm to self, another, or someone’s property, it is vital to learn to get away from it. These situations only lead to negative (sometimes lethal) consequences. It takes a high level of self-control to be able to walk away, but it helps someone make wiser choices.

For example, if a person is about to buy too much online, then she could put the phone or the computer down and go do something else. Another example would be if a teen’s friend wants him to steal something. The teen chooses to get away from that friend and not hang out with him anymore.

Take 5-10 deep breaths

Taking five to ten deep breaths helps clear the mind and helps the person slow down enough to be able to think. Breathe in, and count to four. Then breathe out, count to six. Do this for about 30 seconds, at least. Spending a full minute can be even more effective. Once the mind is clear and the body is calm, it much easier to be able to think about what one needs to do.

Practice yoga, meditation, or prayer

Yoga and meditation and prayer are things that can help someone gain control over their mind and body. It teaches patience and strength, and these are two virtues that greatly help with impulse control. These things also help with the management of emotions. Impulse control issues are causally related to the poor management of emotions.

Poor decisions can come from out-of-control fear, anger, sadness, and pain. Prayer can always be helpful, too, because self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. People can try to do all they possibly can do on their own, but really, self-control comes from Jesus. Spending time in daily prayer can help with impulses.

Find a distraction (music, art, humor, etc)

The things that someone may feel most tempted to do can consume the mind. It can help to find something to distract them— listening to or playing music, going outside for a walk, doing a chore around the house, focusing on a task, creating art, working on a project, taking time to read a book, among other things. Finding a distraction gets a person’s mind off the impulsive decision (the candy she was about to eat, the purse she was about to buy online, the traffic light he was about to run, or the test he was about to cheat on).

Wait at least 24 hours before making a bigger decision

These decisions could cover a wide spectrum of things, but it is always wise to take time to consider them. This is a time to clear the mind, calm down, and consider the possible outcomes of the decision.

If a person wants to buy something that is not an immediate need, he can ask himself things like “do I actually need this” or “do I have the money for this right now” or “does this fit into the budget?” If it is something that could be a life-changing decision, he can spend time asking things like “what could happen if I choose to do this?” “How will the close people in my life be affected by this choice?”

Stop for at least sixty seconds before a decision to ask one or more of these types of questions:

  • Is this going to hurt me or someone else?
  • What is the potential outcome of this decision?
  • What will happen in the short term?
  • What could happen in the long term?
  • Would I still do this a week from now?

Treatment for Impulse Control Disorders

The treatment will depend on the specific diagnosis. Medication may be necessary in some cases, especially if there are any Co-morbid conditions. Some may require hospitalization or residential treatment facilities, depending on how severe the signs and symptoms are. If a person exhibits dangerous and highly risky behaviors, those types of facilities may be necessary.

If a person’s behaviors are less risky, consistent professional counseling can help them learn to do these things and more to help them manage their impulsive behaviors. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, different forms of play therapy, art therapy, music therapy, different forms of somatic therapies, yoga, and others.

People with impulse control problems are often seen in society as the “bad guys,” the ones who are always in trouble at school, the criminals, the ones who cheat on their spouses and spend all their money on ridiculous things. People write them off and do not think they can amount to anything. It is possible for them to make the changes that they need to live full lives and to be able to keep control of themselves.

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