Impulse Control Disorder Symptoms & Effects

Learn how to recognize the signs, symptoms, and effects of impulse control disorder. Resource Treatment Center provides comprehensive mental health and psychiatric treatment for youth who are suffering from impulse control disorder.

Understanding Impulse Control

Learn about impulse control

When children and adolescents severely struggle to control their emotions and behaviors, they may potentially be suffering from an impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are characterized by chronic problems in which people lack the ability to maintain self-control which ultimately results in the onset of extreme disruptions and dysfunctions in personal, familial, social, and academic aspects of their lives. Children and adolescents with impulse control disorders frequently engage in repetitive, destructive behaviors despite the adverse consequences that arise from the participation in those behaviors. These individuals do not possess the necessary skills required to govern behaviors and emotional responses appropriately and treatment is necessary. Even in cases where individuals suffering from these conditions have a desire to gain control over their emotions and behaviors, they find it difficult, and almost impossible, to do so due to the fact that the urges to participate in the behaviors are undeniably overwhelming and all-consuming.

Some of the most common forms of impulse control disorders that present in children and adolescents are described in the following:

Kleptomania involves an uncontrollable, irresistible, and repetitive impulse to steal and hoard items that belong to others. Those who have kleptomania are commonly aware of the fact that engaging in such behavior is wrong and senseless, but continue to do so even despite the fact that, in most cases, the items being stolen are not even something that they need. Additionally, when these individuals begin feeling the urge to participate in such theft, they become plagued by feelings of tension prior to committing the theft, and then feel a sense of pleasure, gratification, and relief once the theft has been completed. It is also important to note that, when people have kleptomania, they are not engaging in theft as a means of expressing anger or vengeance, nor are they doing so in response to a hallucination or delusion. It is simply indicative of the presence of this form of mental illness.

Pyromania refers to the deliberate and purposeful act of setting things on fire in order to relieve the tension or affective arousal that has arisen prior to completing the act. People with pyromania have a sincere, albeit unhealthy, fascination with fire and find pleasure and gratification upon witnessing the results of their fire-setting.

Compulsive sexual behavior is typically identified by the presence of excessive and uncontrollable thoughts about sexual activity or the irrepressible need to participate in behaviors involving sexual activity. Examples of compulsive sexual behaviors can include things such as promiscuity, excessive masturbation, exhibitionism, voyeurism, excessive use of pornography, and extreme fetishes that become so powerful that the desires to participate in such behaviors begin to overrule a person’s ability to function appropriately on a daily basis.

Intermittent explosive disorder tends to be more frequently diagnosed than other impulse control disorders and entails physical and/or emotional outbursts that can be aggressive in nature. These outbursts are recurrent and are characterized by the presence of extreme tension leading up to the outburst and then are often followed by feelings of remorse and embarrassment once the outburst has subsided.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for impulse control

Due to the fact that professionals in the mental health field have been unable to identify a specific cause as to why impulse control disorders develop, the agreed consensus is that a combination of multiple factors come into play when leading up to the onset of an impulse control disorder. Included in the following are examples of such contributing factors:

Genetic: As is the case with the majority of mental health disorders, there appears to be a strong genetic tie to the presence of impulse control disorders. Various studies have shown that children and adolescents who have family members who struggle with illnesses such as mood disorders are more susceptible to developing symptoms of impulse control disorders.

Physical: Research has shown that there is a high probability that when the specific brain structures that are linked to the functioning of emotions, planning, and memory become imbalanced, symptoms of impulse control behaviors can develop.

Environmental: Environmental factors can play a significant role in the onset of behaviors that are symptomatic of impulse control disorders. When children are raised in families where violence, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and explosive emotional reactions to certain situations are prevalent, they may be at a higher risk for developing some type of impulse control disorder. For some children and adolescents, the onset of such behaviors may be a somewhat unconscious means of gaining control over situations in which they would otherwise not have any control and provide them with a sense of escape from the chaos that surrounds them.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Being of younger age
  • Chronic exposure to violence and aggressive
  • Being the subject of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse and neglect
  • Preexisting mental illness
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal or family history of substance abuse and addiction

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of impulse control

The signs and symptoms that will present themselves in children and adolescents who are struggling with an impulse control disorder will vary depending on the specific type of impulse control disorder they have, how old they are, the environment in which they are surrounded, and whether they are female or male. The following is a list of different behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that may indicate the presence of an impulse control disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Stealing
  • Compulsive lying.
  • Starting fires
  • Participating in risky sexual behaviors
  • Acting out aggressively or violently against people, animals, objects, and/or property

Physical symptoms:

  • Presence of injuries or scars from engaging in physical fights or episodes of aggressively acting out
  • Burn marks on those who engage in fire-starting behaviors
  • Presence of sexually-transmitted diseases as a result from participating in risky sexual behaviors

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Obsessive thought patterns
  • Compulsive thought patterns
  • Inability to control impulses
  • Inability to remain patient

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Isolating oneself from friends and family
  • Lowered feelings of self-worth
  • Random episodes of emotional detachment


Effects of impulse control

The long-term effects that can result when the symptoms of impulse control disorders go untreated can be extremely detrimental and have long-lasting negative impacts on the child or adolescent’s life. Examples of such effects may include:

  • Decline in academic performance
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Experiencing extreme difficulty in developing and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Participating in self-harming behaviors
  • Legal interaction, including possible incarceration
  • Consistently decreasing feelings of self-worth

Co-Occurring Disorders

Impulse control and co-occurring disorders

The symptoms that may be present in those who have an impulse control disorder may mirror or overlap symptoms that are associated with other mental health disorders. Some of the most commonly cited disorders know to occur with, or to present symptoms that mirror, impulse control disorders include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder

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