Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are what they sound like. They’re a group of behavioral conditions that involve an inability to control impulses and behaviors, like angry outbursts and destroying property. Therapy and adapting parenting strategies can help manage ICDs.
Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are a group of behavioral conditions that make it difficult to control your actions or reactions. These problematic behaviors often cause harm to others and/or yourself. They can also lead to issues with the law.
Some examples of these behaviors include:
Signs of impulse control disorders typically begin in childhood and can continue into adulthood.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists the following conditions as impulse control disorders:
Each impulse control disorder affects different percentages of the general U.S. population:
Pyromania is the rarest type of impulse control disorder. One study showed that only 3% of people in prison for arson specifically met the criteria for pyromania.
ICDs tend to affect people assigned male at birth (AMAB) more often than people assigned female at birth (AFAB), except for kleptomania.
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Each impulse control disorder has different signs and symptoms. But they all involve a decreased ability to control your own behavior, which often negatively affects other people or breaks laws.
Most people with an impulse control disorder know their behavior is inappropriate, but they can’t stop it. People with an ICD usually feel an increasing internal tension before they act out. After the deviant behavior, they often feel a release or catharsis.
Another way to think of impulse control disorders is that the behaviors are externalizing. In other words, people with ICDs express resentment and hostility outwardly to others. This often creates conflicts with other people (or the law). This is different from other kinds of mental health conditions, like anxiety disorders and mood disorders, in which the person internalizes their distress.
It’s important to remember that most kids become defiant at times. They test their — and other people’s — boundaries to learn what’s appropriate and what’s not. But impulse control disorders involve an ongoing pattern of much more severe behaviors. These behaviors disrupt daily life and negatively affect relationships.
Researchers are still learning about the causes of impulse control disorders. So far, they think a variety of factors contribute to their development, including:
Mental health professionals diagnose impulse control disorders based on the criteria in the DSM-5. The signs and symptoms usually have to be apparent for at least six or 12 months. In addition, they must cause significant clinical stress that disrupts your daily life.
You or your child will likely need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist if you or they are showing signs of an impulse control disorder. These experts use specially designed interview and assessment tools to check for mental and behavioral conditions.
Psychiatrists and psychologists often rely on reports of people close to the person to get a full understanding of their behavior. This could include parents, siblings, friends and teachers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t approve any medications for impulse control disorders. So treatment mainly involves therapy and parenting strategy adjustments.
Helpful parenting strategies for ICDs include:
Specific therapies that can help include:
While they may not be entirely preventable, early diagnosis and treatment of impulse control disorders can greatly reduce the distress that your child and family experience. Additionally, it can help prevent the various issues that are commonly associated with ICDs.
The prognosis (outlook) for impulse control disorders can vary based on the specific condition and its severity. But ICDs tend to be chronic (long-term) and can significantly impact the lives of those who have them and their loved ones.
Studies show that people with an ICD have a high likelihood of:
However, intensive therapy can help keep problematic behaviors at bay.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Children and teens who are aggressive or break rules or laws can be very challenging for parents. While it’s normal for young children and teens to show defiant behavior from time to time, frequent and disruptive behavior may indicate an impulse control disorder.
Starting treatment early for impulse control disorders is important, and the first step to treatment is to talk with a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Don’t be afraid to ask your provider questions. They’re available to help.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/07/2023.
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