Signs & Symptoms of Impulse Control

Learn about the side effects, causes, signs and symptoms of impulse control. Millcreek of Magee Treatment Center offers the best residential treatment and home-based programs for children & adolescents struggling with impulse control.

Understanding Impulse Control

Learn more about impulse control

Impulse control disorders are characterized by an ongoing lack of self-control, including the inability to manage one’s behaviors and emotions. These disorders are most commonly diagnosed in childhood, but there is always the possibility for the development of lasting and harmful effects if they are not properly treated. Some of the most common impulse control disorders include intermittent explosive disorder, kleptomania, and pyromania, all of which are described in further detail below:

Intermittent explosive disorder: This type of impulse control disorder is characterized by episodes of aggressive and violent outbursts that are grossly out of proportion to the situation at hand. These explosive episodes often result in destruction of property, as well as harm to self or others.

Kleptomania: Those with kleptomania have an inability to resist impulses to repetitively steal objects. While those with this disorder know that stealing is wrong and feel guilty about it, they are unable to stop.

Pyromania: Defined as the repetitive, deliberate, and purposeful setting of fires, those with pyromania are aroused by fire-setting and feel a sense of pleasure and/or relief when setting fires or witnessing the consequences of those fires.

Those who suffer from impulse control disorders, no matter which one, all have one thing in common; they are consumed with compulsions, obsessions, and preoccupations of certain thoughts and behaviors so much so that they eventually give into them. Due to the inability to control these thoughts and behaviors, an individual can begin to suffer from a wide variety of negative consequences and irreversible damage. However, there is treatment available that can help individuals suffering from impulse control disorders learn to manage their impulses and go on to lead productive lives.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for impulse control

As is most often the case with mental health disorders, the exact causes of impulse control disorder are also unknown. Additionally, like other disorders, the development of these disorders is thought to be linked to genetics, environment, and/or neurological factors. The following are further explanations of these theories:

Genetic: A child who has a first-degree relative who suffers from an impulse control disorder, has a greater likelihood for developing an impulse control disorder at some point in their life. Due to these findings, it can be concluded impulse control disorders can be hereditary.

Physical: Other research suggests that impulse control disorders are linked to certain hormones, abnormal nerve impulses, and variations in brain chemistry and functioning. More specifically, in regards to impulse control disorders, it has been found that individuals suffering from these types of conditions have an imbalance in chemicals that are responsible for regulating impulses and mood.

Environmental: Finally, environmental influences and situations are believed to play a large role in the development of symptoms that are associated with impulse control disorders. For example, chronic substance use, ongoing violence or aggression, and being the victim of a trauma can all increase a person’s chances of developing an impulse control disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Being of younger age
  • Family history of a mental health condition(s)
  • Personal history of mental health disorders
  • Exposure to violence and/or aggression
  • Being the victim of abuse or neglect
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Having had a severe head injury
  • Having epilepsy
  • Family or personal history of substance use, abuse, or addiction

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of impulse control

The signs and symptoms present in those with impulse control disorders will vary depending upon the specific type of disorder they are struggling with. The following is a list of behavioral, psychical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that may be present in a person with an impulse control disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Engaging in risky or promiscuous behaviors and/or activities
  • Stealing from family members, friends, or stores
  • Starting fires
  • Lying
  • Hair pulling
  • Explosive violent outbursts against others or property of others
  • Extreme defiance
  • Running away for no apparent reason

Physical symptoms:

  • Variety of burns due to fire starting
  • Physical injuries as a result of acting out behaviors
  • Loss of hair
  • Scars
  • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases or infections due to promiscuous behavior

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Obsessions
  • Uncontrollable urges
  • Ongoing agitation
  • Increased irritability
  • Inability to concentrate

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Detached feeling from emotions and surroundings
  • Aggression
  • Agitation
  • Growing tension
  • Increased anxiety
  • Depressed mood
  • Feelings of guilt / regret
  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • Low self-esteem / self-worth
  • Social withdrawal or isolation


The effects of impulse control

If not properly treated, an individual suffering from an impulse control disorder is at risk of experiencing a number of detrimental effects if symptoms remain. Some of these effects can include:

  • Academic failure
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Inability to hold down a job
  • Problems with law enforcement
  • Incarceration
  • Inability to make or keep healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Serious physical injury

Co-Occurring Disorders

 Impulse control and co-occurring disorders

Symptoms of other mental health conditions are known to occur alongside impulse control disorders. The following mental illnesses are examples of disorders that may be present at the same time as an impulse control disorder:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Substance use disorders