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Impulse Control Disorder in Teens

Teenage girl with impulse control disorder

Teenagers are generally just beginning to learn self-control and figure out how to manage their emotions. As a result, teens are often more likely to take risks or to lose their cool in social situations. While this may be just a normal part of growing up, for some teens their inability to control themselves may be a sign of something far more serious.

Impulse control disorders are a set of conditions indicating a more severe, long-term problem with controlling emotions or behaviors. Impulse control disorders can include:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder
  • Kleptomania
  • Trichotillomania
  • Pyromania

People with these conditions often end up breaking laws and harming themselves or others.

Impulse control disorder in children is not well-studied, and it’s not always clear whether someone has one of these conditions until they get older. However, those who struggle with impulse control are also more likely to have other mental health disorders and abuse drugs and alcohol. Addressing symptoms of these conditions early on may help someone avoid getting into more trouble later.

Impulse Control Disorder Statistics

Impulse control disorders are often hard to diagnose in children. It’s not always easy to distinguish between teenage impulsive behavior that is part of the normal development process and more severe behavior that is occurring on a regular basis. Impulsive teenagers don’t always have the skills yet to express what they’re thinking and feeling, so it may be difficult to recognize what sorts of emotions or sensations are causing a particular behavior.

Among adults, estimates of the prevalence of impulse control disorder range from less than 1% to 10%. This number likely changes between different types of impulse control disorders. It is estimated that the prevalence of conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder in children and teens is around 5%. Boys are twice as likely as girls to have these disorders.

Teenage impulsivity is more common in kids who grow up in a home in which the norm is harsh, abusive or neglectful parenting. Teens are also more likely to have these disorders if they are exposed to violence at a young age. It’s likely that there is a genetic component to impulse control disorders, as teens who have them are more likely to have someone in their family who also shares these disorders. Teens and their family members are also likely to have other mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance use disorders.

Symptoms of Impulse Control Disorder in Children

Impulse control disorder symptoms are slightly different for each specific type of disorder. In general, people with one of these conditions will have a lot of impatience and obsessive thoughts. They also tend to have a lot of anxiety before performing a certain behavior, such as committing violence or stealing, and then feel relief once they’ve done that action.

Common characteristics of impulse control disorders in children include:

  • Not being fully in control of a particular behavior or emotional response
  • Continuing to act a certain way despite knowing that there will be negative consequences
  • Experiencing cravings to perform a certain negative behavior
  • Feeling like pressure or tension is relieved after engaging in a certain behavior

The effects of an impulse control disorder in a child often include doing poorly in school, getting detentions or suspensions, self-harm, relationship problems, and legal trouble.

Does Impulse Control Disorder in Teens Cause Substance Abuse?

It’s not clear if impulse control disorders directly cause teen drug use, but the two are definitely linked. Addiction is similar to impulse disorders in that both include the inability to control a certain behavior despite negative consequences and experiencing cravings. Additionally, in both substance use disorder and impulse control disorder there are differences in a person’s brain chemistry, including changes in levels of the brain chemical dopamine.

Mental health disorders and addiction often go hand-in-hand, with about 8.5 million adults struggling with both. The rates of substance use disorder in adults with impulse control disorders depends on the exact condition. Substance abuse occurs in about 22-50% of adults with kleptomania, 35-48% of adults with intermittent explosive disorder, 33% of adults with pyromania and 64% of adults with compulsive sexual behavior. Exact rates of addiction in teens aren’t yet well understood, but research has shown that teens with many types of mental health disorders are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Most Common Drugs Used by Impulsive Teenagers

The number one drug used by teens is marijuana, with one study reporting that 16% of twelfth-graders saying that they had used cannabis in the last month. A lot of teenagers also abuse alcohol — over half have reported drinking at some point in their lives.

Exact data isn’t available for the rates at which impulsive teenagers use specific substances, but generally speaking, teens are more likely to use drugs if their friends and older siblings are modeling the same behavior. This can be dangerous for teens with impulse control disorders, because drug or alcohol use can actually increase impulsive teenage behavior, potentially making a bad situation even worse.

Treatment Options for Teens Exhibiting Impulse Control Disorder

There usually isn’t any medication that is prescribed for controlling impulsive behavior in teenagers. However, many teens with impulse control disorders also struggle with other mental health disorders like depression, and drugs can be taken to ease symptoms for those disorders. More research is underway to find other medications that can help people with impulse disorders. Some recent studies have shown that antidepressants may be able to help people with intermittent explosive disorder, and naltrexone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, might help with kleptomania.

Therapy is often useful to teach teenagers impulse control activities. Individual or group therapy can help kids gain new skills that helps them better manage their emotions and behaviors. Additionally, family therapy or parent training can teach family members how to best respond to outbursts or other harmful behaviors.

Some teens with impulse control disorders will need teen addiction treatment for substance abuse. Having a tough but loving conversation or intervention may be necessary for teens who don’t want help. Because people with impulse control disorders may have trouble with being violent or aggressive, it may be best to get the help of a professional who has experience dealing with this particular condition and steps should be taken to protect others.

Can Teens Learn Impulse Control?

Many experts have developed strategies to help teens learn impulse control. Counseling and occupational therapy may also be able to help with impulse control for teens. Mental health professionals can help teach anger management, problem-solving, mindfulness and communication strategies that can help a kid cope with these disorders. Other impulse control techniques for teenagers may include joining organized sports or clubs, or learning how to reduce stress through strategies like yoga and exercise routines.

How to Find Mental Health or Addiction Treatment for Your Teen

People struggling with both substance abuse and impulse control disorders will benefit from a treatment plan that manages both co-occurring disorders. If you want to learn more about how experts can treat both substance abuse and impulse control disorder at the same time, call the Next Generation Village. We specialize in helping teens and young people overcome addiction and can help people learn to cope with other mental health issues in a less destructive way.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


  • Bose, Jonaki; et al. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” September 2018. Accessed September 15, 2019.
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; et al. “Mental Disorders and Disabilities Among Low-Income Children: Prevalence of Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder.” National Academies Press, October 25, 2018. Accessed September 15, 2019.
  • Probst, Catharina C.; van Eimeren, Thilo. “The Functional Anatomy of Impulse Control Disorders.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, August 21, 2013. Accessed September 15, 2019.
  • Schreiber, Liana; Odlaug, Brian L.; Grant, Jon E. “Impulse Control Disorders: Updated Review of Clinical Characteristics and Pharmacological Management.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, February 21, 2011. Accessed September 15, 2019.
  • Schuler, Megan S.; et al. “Relative influence of perceived peer and family substance use on adolescent alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use across middle and high school.” Addictive Behaviors, August 25, 2018. Accessed September 15, 2019.

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