Some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience impulsivity as one of their symptoms. Methods to manage impulsivity can include behavior therapy and medication.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), ADHD affects around 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults in the United States. ADHD symptoms can include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Impulsivity means reduced behavioral control. A person might act or speak without taking the time to think first. They might make hasty decisions or find it difficult to resist temptation.

This article explores ADHD impulsivity, including common behaviors in people with this trait, treatment and management strategies, when to talk with a doctor, and the outlook.

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ADHD can interfere with a person’s ability to consider the effects of their actions. The impulse to act is faster than the thought process that might stop or change the action.

A 2015 research article suggests that differences in the brain region known as the thalamus may contribute to ADHD impulsivity.

The thalamus sends messages to the prefrontal cortex, which is the region responsible for executive function. When this message signaling doesn’t work properly, executive functions, such as impulse control, can lag.

Another 2015 article suggests the brain region known as the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in emotional responses, plays a role in ADHD impulsivity.

The smaller amygdala volume observed in people with ADHD may link to less control over impulsivity. Not everyone living with ADHD experiences impulsivity, however.

There are three ADHD subtypes:

  • inattentive
  • hyperactive/impulsive
  • combined type, which features inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive traits

A person who does not experience hyperactive or impulsive symptoms can still meet the diagnostic criteria for the inattentive subtype of ADHD.

Impulsive behaviors in people with ADHD may include:

  • calling out answers before the question is complete
  • speaking out of turn
  • interrupting other speakers
  • moving around when they may need to sit still
  • giving in to distraction
  • engaging in unsafe behavior
  • experiencing reduced emotional regulation
  • succumbing to impulses, such as spending money or eating treats

Impulsivity in ADHD adults and children

Sometimes ADHD impulsivity looks different in adults than in children. Children might move ahead in a lineup, whereas adults might express frustration at waiting.

Children and adults with ADHD impulsivity can both express mood outbursts, but for different reasons. A child might be upset waiting to play with a preferred toy, while an adult might lose their temper while stuck in traffic.

ADHD impulsivity behaviors can differ depending on both a person’s age and the situation they’re in.

A 2017 review and the APA both state that psychostimulant medication is the first-line therapy for core ADHD symptoms, such as impulsivity, in people ages 6 years and older.

For children under 6 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends parent training in behavior management (PTBM) to treat ADHD symptoms. The AAP indicates that PTBM should occur before medication use.

Therapy can help people of all ages manage ADHD impulsivity. Examples include:

  • skills training
  • behavior therapy
  • psychological counseling

Best ADHD medication for impulsivity

The effects of ADHD medications vary from person to person. A medication that controls ADHD impulsivity for one person may not have the same effect on someone else. Many people try more than one before finding the right fit.

The stimulant medication methylphenidate is an effective ADHD treatment for children and adolescents. It can help with symptoms such as response inhibition. Yet a 2016 study found it more effective in regulating attention than decreasing impulsivity.

Sometimes a co-occurring condition can affect treatment options. For example, a 2021 article suggests selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used for treating depression may also reduce impulsivity.

A person who wants medication treatment for impulsivity can speak with a healthcare professional to find the right option for their specific situation.

How to reduce impulsivity in a child with ADHD

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that PTBM is an effective approach for parents to help young children improve their behavior, self-esteem, and self-control.

During this training, parents regularly meet with a therapist to monitor their progress and receive coaching.

Parents can also take some additional steps with their children, such as:

  • playing impulse control games, such as “Simon Says”
  • encouraging daily physical activity
  • practicing delayed gratification
  • modeling patience and impulse control
  • teaching alternate behaviors, like raising a hand instead of interrupting
  • providing structure and consistent rules
  • teaching anger management techniques, such as deep breathing
  • practicing labeling feelings

A person may choose to talk with a doctor if ADHD impulsivity is:

  • affecting their relationships
  • interfering with their ability to work
  • affecting learning at school
  • posing a safety risk to themselves or others

Parents may receive communications from their child’s classroom teacher indicating problems at school. For an adult with ADHD, it may be a conversation with a friend, family member, or colleague that makes them aware a change is needed.

Sometimes ADHD impulsivity improves with age. Other times it persists but may seem less intrusive because of acquired adult coping skills.

Around 80% of children living with ADHD will still meet the clinical definition of the condition when they become adults, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

Read more about how ADHD can change with age.

Impulsivity is a core ADHD symptom. It can appear in a variety of ways, such as talking out of turn, reckless spending, and risk-taking behaviors.

ADHD treatments, such as medication and therapy, can help people manage their impulsivity. Different options are available, so it is possible to switch if a strategy isn’t effective.

Many people living with ADHD can manage their symptoms with treatment and support.