The Role of Impulsivity in ADD

What does impulsivity look like? When it happens once in a while, it can look like every day kid behaviour. When it happens a lot, though, it looks like what it actually is: trouble with self-control.

Impulsivity doesn’t appear the same way in every child. And the behaviours can change as kids get older. When kids are impulsive, they might:

  • Do silly or inappropriate things to get attention
  • Have trouble following rules consistently
  • Be aggressive toward other kids (hitting, kicking, or biting is common in young kids)
  • Have trouble waiting their turn in games and conversation
  • Grab things from people or push in line
  • Overreact to frustration, disappointment, mistakes, and criticism
  • Want to have the last word and the first turn
  • Not understand how their words or behaviour affect other people
  • Not understand the consequences of their actions

Kids can be impulsive for lots of reasons. Sometimes, it really is a matter of maturity. Not all kids develop at the same rate, and some just take longer than others to gain the ability to stop and think before acting.

ADD makes it hard to contain intense feelings, like anger. For instance, when kids with ADD get angry, they might kick the furniture or say something mean, rather than quietly fume.

ADD and Impulse Control

ADD impacts the way the different regions of the brain communicate. That affects inattention, impulsivity, and emotional regulation.

Impulsivity, a primary symptom of ADD, may impair your ability to stop and think about the consequences before speaking or acting.

The thalamus area of the brain controls response inhibition. It works like a gate — sending signals to allow or stop behaviours.

When the brain detects a red flag, its limbic-hippocampal connections relay a warning from the thalamus to the frontal cortex. That’s the control centre of the brain that handles emotional expression and problem solving.

In ADD brains, the thalamus gate is broken. That means a person with ADD may struggle to:

  • Hold back a comment that may hurt someone’s feeling
  • Rein in short-term desires like eating candy or spending money

People without ADD have the ability to stop, mid-stream if they recognize a person is not smiling,” says Joel Nigg, Ph.D. “The child with ADD needs 20-30 milliseconds longer warning [to correct course], which is an eternity when it comes to behaviour control.”

In other words, this is not simply rudeness or lack of self-discipline. It is a function of the interior signalling system of the brain.

It’s easy to make assumptions about what’s behind a child’s impulsive behaviour. For instance, if a child makes a rude remark, people might think the remark was intentionally insulting. But in a lot of cases, like with ADD, kids don’t mean to be rude or aggressive. They do need more help and practice, though, to learn to stop and think before acting.

For more information about helping your child with ADD, contact Anel Annandale at 083 711 5267 or via email at  anel@childpsych.co.za.

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