From elementary to high school, most of us had at least one classmate who was talkative, fidgety, constantly daydreaming, or otherwise couldn’t seem to follow the teacher’s directions. These individuals were often mislabeled as troublemakers, kids that misbehaved simply for the sake of being disobedient or attention. It turns out they likely had undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the culprit behind their unruly behavior. 

Impulsivity is one of the primary symptoms and most easily observable signs of ADHD. Do you suspect that you, your child, or someone you know has ADHD? Let’s explore what impulsivity is and some of the most common ADHD impulsivity examples. 

Psychology Definition of Impulsivity

In psychology, impulsivity is defined by three dimensions: motor (action), cognitive (thoughts), and non-planning (consideration of the future). Impulsive behavior isn’t just the sudden urge to do something, but also the inability to stop one’s self from doing or thinking about something. 

These individuals struggle with delaying gratification and cannot evaluate the consequences of their actions. The result? People who are extra sensitive to internal and external stimuli and who act, say, or do things without considering the potential outcome. Such behavior could easily be mistaken for rebelliousness or immaturity. 

Additionally, the ADHD brain is less adept at changing course when their behavior incurs negative consequences. It takes them longer to recognize those negative reactions, and thus, longer to cease whatever their disruptive behavior was. 

Examples of Impulsive Behavior in ADHD

It’s normal for humans to occasionally engage in behavior that’s not deemed “appropriate” from time to time. The difference between individuals with ADHD is that these behaviors happen frequently, despite negative repercussions (getting in trouble with authority, injuring themselves, damaging social relationships).  

  1. Frequently interrupting others – This behavior may be observable as early as preschool years and may persist into adulthood. Interruptions could be in the form of constantly asking questions or disrupting a game being played by other people. 
  2. Inability to sit still/Restlessness – There’s a line between being high-energy and being hyperactive. How do you know when it’s the latter? If it’s a child, they may refuse to sit still for long periods and seem disinterested in eating, story, time, or playing games. They fidget even when engaged in activities like watching television.
  3. Tasks are often left unfinished – Necessary tasks like chores and homework are difficult to complete, even with the risk of negative consequences for not doing them, ADHD individuals often have difficulty getting started on tasks and are seemingly serial procrastinators. When they do begin a task, they may find themselves flitting from one thing to another. 
  4. Frequent spending – An inability to delay gratification can mean a person may make questionable impulse purchases without giving thought to how it will affect their financial well-being. They may have significant debt because of their shopping habits and other proof of financial trouble.
  5. Self-destructive behavior – One scientific study found that ADHD affects between 2.5-5% of adults in the general population, but 40% of imprisoned men. This overrepresentation of ADHD in incarcerated populations is far from a coincidence. Studies have also found the rate of suicide is much higher in ADHD individuals than in the general population. 

How Does ADHD Cause Impulsivity?

ADHD contributes to impulsive behavior in multiple ways, affecting both the size and functioning of the brain, neural networks, and levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.  

Dorsolateral prefrontal lobe lesions have been linked to attention impairment and hyperactivity and are commonly found in individuals with a personality disorder or who experience mania. The inability to delay gratification involves the ventromedial prefrontal lobe. These parts of the brain are often smaller in individuals with ADHD than in their peers. They also can take up to several years longer to mature than non-ADHD individuals. 

Further still is ADHD’s relationship with the thalamus area of this brain. The thalamus acts as a gate, allowing or stopping signals to and from the brain to give it orders. These “orders” can range from deciding when to speak or what to say, or making an action such as making a big purchase.

Another potential cause of impulsive behavior?  One in six children with ADHD also has a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder:

  • 50% have a behavioral issue
  • 33% have anxiety
  • 17% have depression
  • 14% have autism
  • 1% has Tourette syndrome

Treating ADHD Impulsivity

Advances in psychology have improved our understanding (and acceptance) of this mental illness. They have shown that classic disruptive classroom behavior isn’t a behavioral issue, but rather a mental illness-induced lack of impulse control. Still, ADHD can be a highly debilitating disorder, especially if untreated. If you or a loved one exhibits the symptoms above, speak to a mental health therapist near you today.