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Impulse Control Disorder in Teens

Impulse Control Disorder in Teens

Teenagers are inherently programmed to make decisions and react from an emotional standpoint, not a rational standpoint. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is not yet fully formed until a person reaches age twenty-five, at the earliest. This area of the brain reigns rational thought, impulse control, executive planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and more. Since the prefrontal cortex of teens is underdeveloped, teenagers innately rely on the amygdala. The amygdala is the area of the brain that governs one’s emotions, impulsivity, emotional behavior, and motivation responsible for emotions. Adolescence is the time when young people begin to learn self-control and exhibiting occasional out-of-control behaviors is to be expected. However, if an adolescent struggles with pervasive impulse control issues it may be indicative of an impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are characterized by chronic problems in which young people lack the ability to maintain self-control, which in turn results in the onset of extreme disruptions and dysfunctions in personal, familial, social, and academic aspects of their lives. 

Five Types

Children and adolescents with impulse control disorders are compelled to engage in repetitive, destructive behaviors despite the adverse consequences that occur from participating in those behaviors. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes the following five standalone impulse control disorders each with distinct characteristics:   

  1. Kleptomania: characterized by an inability to control the impulse or urge to steal superfluous, unneeded, and/ or meaningless items
  2. Pyromania: characterized by an inability to control the impulse to set fires
  3. Intermittent explosive disorder: characterized by an inability to control the impulse to respond in rage to minor triggers 
  4. Pathological gambling: characterized by an inability to control the impulse to gamble
  5. Trichotillomania: characterized by an inability to resist the impulse to pull out one’s hair 

An unspecified impulse control disorder is diagnosed when a young person exhibits general signs and symptoms of an impulse control disorder, but whose signs and symptoms do not fall into any of the above categories.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms that will present themselves in children and adolescents who are struggling with an impulse control disorder will vary as they will depend on a variety of contributing factors (e.g., 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, etc.). Cross Creek Hospital provides the following examples of the most common behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that may indicate the presence of an impulse control disorder:

  • Behavioral symptoms:
    • Starting fires
    • Sudden explosive anger or acts of violence
    • Hair pulling
    • Participating in risky sexual behaviors
    • Stealing
    • Compulsive lying
    • Poor social skills
    • Isolating oneself from family and friend
  • Physical symptoms:
    • Burn marks on those who engage in fire-starting behaviors
    • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases from engaging in risky sexual behavior
    • Patches of missing hair
    • Physical injuries or scars from engaging in physical fights or aggressive episodes
    • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Cognitive symptoms:
    • Inability to control impulses
    • Unable to remain patient
    • Obsessive thought patterns
    • Compulsive thought patterns
  • Psychosocial symptoms:
    • Irritability
    • Feeling unable to control actions
    • Fear of abandonment
    • Lowered feelings of self-worth
    • Episodes of emotional detachment
    • Agitation
    • Depression
    • Anxiety

The symptoms associated with these disorders tend to get worse over time, regardless of the type of impulse control disorder. Treatment is necessary for teenagers with an impulse control disorder as they lack the necessary skills required to govern behaviors and emotional responses appropriately.

For Information and Support

Every family in need of mental health treatment must select a program that will best suit the needs of their family. When one member of a family struggles, it impacts everyone in the family unit. To maximize the benefits of treatment we work closely with the entire family to ensure that everyone is receiving the support they need through these difficult times.

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, in the long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.


We are available to answer any questions you may have regarding mental health treatment and our residential program, anytime. Contact us today using the form to the right.

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