Impulsivity is characteristic common to teenage experiences. As adolescents develop independence, they act out in many different ways. Their unpredictable behavior is overwhelming for most parents who often chalk it up to just being a teen.
Most of the time this actually is the case. Early teenage years are when kids learn who they are, what they’re interested in, and how they want to live life. While it’s important to give your child the space to be themselves, leaving impulsive behaviors unchecked can lead to problems.
A new study suggests that high levels of impulsivity during the teenage years are linked to behavioral disorders later in life.1 Highly impulsive adolescents are more likely to experience conditions like alcohol use disorder (AUD) or antisocial personality disorder later in life. Teens who show extreme impulse control problems need a professional assessment administered by a qualified mental health provider who can determine whether intervention is necessary, and offer guidance on finding treatment and support to help to help avoid developing more serious problems later on.
If you’re the parent of a teen, how do you know whether your teen is showing signs of impulse control?
Where is the line between healthy curiosity and impulsivity?
What can you do to help your teen harness their impulsive behaviors before they become problematic?
We’ll address these three questions below.
Impulsivity Isn’t Always a Bad Thing
Teenagers are curious by nature. Adolescence is defined by change, after all. Young people start finding their place in the world during their teenage years. They determine what they’re interested in and what they enjoy doing. They develop friendships and create friend groups. This transitional period involves very personal physical changes as well as the psychological changes we mention above.
Impulsivity is a natural part of the teenage experience. They may change their interests, hobbies, or friend groups as quickly as they pick them up. There’s nothing wrong with some impulsivity during this time.
Teens need space to figure out who they are and change is a big part of that process.
The Line Between Healthy Curiosity And Impulsivity
While impulsivity isn’t a bad thing, there’s a difference between curiosity and impulsivity. A recent study, the Philadelphia Trajectory Study, took a long-term look at adolescents over six years with an additional follow-up after two years. Researchers started interviewing participants between the ages of 10 and 12, finishing up the study when they were 18 to 21.
The study found that adolescents who showed impulse control problems were more likely to develop behavioral problems later in life. It also suggested that antisocial behavior during mid-to-late adolescence was linked to an increased risk of behavioral disorders. As Dan Romer, research director and co-author of the study, explained, “Kids with impulse control problems are at risk for a variety of adverse outcomes, such as drug use, acting-out behavior, and antisocial behavior.”
Young teens who have difficulties controlling their behavior often receive negative attention for their actions. While negative attention encourages some children to correct their behavior, other children take negative attention over no attention. This negative reinforcement can lead to more impulsivity problems, thus increasing the likelihood of problems down the line.
Identifying Problematic Impulse Control Early On
Unfortunately, there is no one metric that determines whether your teen will develop mental health problems or behavioral disorders later in life. However, the connection between impulsivity in adolescence and behavioral disorders in adulthood has researchers working on a solution.
One group of researchers at McGill University created a test that determines a genetically based impulsivity score. They hope that their test will help identify problematic impulsive behavior in young children so they can receive help as early as possible.
When Should You Be Concerned About Your Teen?
Again, not all impulsive behaviors are a cause for concern. Remember that your teen is going through a significant period of change and some impulsivity should be expected. However, some things may suggest your teen is crossing the line into possibly harmful impulse control problems. Some signs of problematic impulsivity in your teen may include:
- Breaking curfew
- Repeated inability to maintain a consistent friend group
- Losing interest in all hobbies or activities
- Hanging out with an older crowd
- Spending most of their time alone
- Behavioral problems at home (i.e. talking back, refusing to participate)
- Concerning performance at school (i.e. grades dropping, getting into trouble)
- Skipping school
- Experimenting with substances
- Getting into trouble with the law
Behaviors like those above are clear indicators that your teen is having trouble with impulse control and needs immediate intervention. The sooner you get help for your child, the less of a chance they have of developing ongoing behavioral disorders.
How To Intervene And Redirect Your Teen’s Behavior
Signs of impulsivity are not guaranteed long-term problems if you get involved in your teen’s life and provide them with the help they need. If you find your teen is starting to show signs of impulse control problems there are steps you can take to redirect their behavior.
Monitor Their Screen Time
Excessive screen time and binge-using apps like TikTok and Instagram have detrimental effects on your teen’s attention span.3 A short attention span can lead to more problems with impulse control. Keep an eye on your teen’s technology use and try to limit the time they spend on their phone, computer, and other devices.
Keep Them Busy
Sign your teen up for plenty of activities to keep them busy. Find sports they may enjoy, clubs they might want to join, or things to do at home to keep them moving. The more you fill your teen’s day with enjoyable activities and obligations, the less time they have to get into trouble.
Seek Professional Help If Needed
Teens who show an ongoing pattern of impulse control problems may need professional help. If you’ve tried to limit your teen’s impulsivity and found it almost impossible, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to a professional. They may benefit from some mental health intervention to uncover any deeper issues that may be at play.
Reach out to a professional mental health treatment facility to see whether your teen may benefit from more direct support and care. Evolve Treatment Programs offers a few specialized approaches to care that can help your impulsive teen learn to identify and correct their problematic behaviors. To learn more about the programs we offer, reach out to us today.
- Science Daily. (2022). Targeting impulsivity early in adolescence could prevent later behavioral disorders.
- Science Daily. (2022). A new understanding of the neurobiology of impulsivity.
- The Science Times. (2021). TikTok is Bad For Your Brain: Constant Social Media Streaming Narrows Collective Attention Span, Adversely Affects Mental Health