Impulsivity and ADHD - The more you know the more you can grow


Impulsivity is an important topic to discuss and a frequent one with many of my clients…Let's dive into it and consider what it is, how it shows up, what the connection to ADHD is, and what are some easy ways you can start right now to better manage your impulsivity.



 What exactly is impulsivity?

The definition of impulsivity is “swayed by emotional or involuntary impulses”. Impulsivity from the root word “Impulsive” denotes a brisk and abrupt action based on a person’s feelings or emotions without careful thought or analysis.

Impulsivity is behavior that is quick, not thought out, and includes spur of the moment decisions that may be harmful to many aspects of our lives; relationships, health, finance, goals, dreams and aspirations.  

Impulsivity is only considering the here and now which is a slippery slope!

When we engage in impulsive behavior over and over it will  consistently work against our goals putting us at a great disadvantage for achieving what we want in life.


Let's look at ages and stages in terms of impulsivity.....

Impulsivity can look different at each stage of one's life.  It is often very obvious in children who are emotionally driven to act, lack strong executive function skills, and who are often delayed in their maturity. 

For example, the child who throws a toy out of frustration or runs across the street without looking when he or she sees something interesting.....Or even pulls an interesting toy out of another child's hands is experiencing how impulsivity impacts relationships.  This is a big issue for many kids with ADHD struggle to make and maintain friendships. This is important to understand for our children as they grow, we want them to have solid friendships and relationships.  And we want this for ourselves as well.

In the case of growing teens, they are more likely to indulge in behaviors based on emotion as well which can get them into trouble.  Examples here may be things like deciding to drive fast or dabbling in risky behavior.  Very often the use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs begin as an impulsive decision. 

Adults can also engage in impulsive decisions especially when there are high emotions and if they have not learned the skills to manage emotions or slow down.  Impulsivity for adults may involve finances and relationships.  Looking at the beautiful fancy watch with a high price tag, and wanting it, paying for it with a credit card (which fuels impulsivity) could lead to serious financial struggles and relationship struggles when this type of behavior becomes habitual.  

When impulsivity occurs in a person's life over and over in ways that do not align with goals and aspirations, it can be harmful and destructive.




Impulsivity is often a significant challenge for those with ADHD. 

The ADHD brain wiring is often weaker or undeveloped in terms of executive functioning and this can set the stage for more impulsive behaviors to occur. 

Executive functions are what help us to slow down, become self aware, make discerned choices that come from organized thinking; and these are all very hard for folks with ADHD.

Here are some examples of how ADHD/Executive function and impulsivity collide

  • Low levels of the neurotransmitters in the brain -  such as dopamine create a “craving” for interest and excitement, this may lead to impulsive actions and  risk taking behaviors.
  • Under developed executive function skills - very often we just have not learned or built the skills to be more self aware, make organized and discerned choices, and habits that lead to success in life.
  • Metacognition (self awareness), is one of the key powerhouse executive function skills, is very low in those with ADHD, leading to significant lack of self awareness. 
  • Other important executive function traits such as sustaining attention (not being distracted by the impulsive desires)
  • Prioritizing (making discerned choices based on goals in life - based on what is really important)
  • Planning (planning in the moment and in advance and following through on what we planned to do vs choosing the 'impulsive' item)
  • Goal directed persistence (knowing what we want and remembering it daily to keep moving towards it) is necessary for making sound choices and decisions, these traits are often underdeveloped or weaker in those with ADHD. 
  • Working Memory - if we cannot remember what we need to do we fall prey to making impulsive decisions.
  • Needs and Wants - Very often we do not differentiate between them, and we are frequently just doing, or taking steps without thinking and planning first.
  • Response inhibition, the ability to slow down and not act impulsively  (which is the definition of impulsivity) is markedly lower in those with ADHD.
  • Task initiation (getting started) and Cognitive flexibility (being able to problem solve, shift, and push through something are often weaker in those with ADHD.  And can lead us to make choices in the moment out of impulse and desire to 'not' do the other thing.
  • Emotional regulation, is a big part of managing impulsivity and is another key player connected to executive function skills. 

So, can you say it's not your fault?  Well.... sort of yes and sort of no…. We all have work to do on ourselves, ADHD aside.  This is work you CAN do and become successful around taking control of the impulsivity and its impact on your life.  

 A few examples are explorations with sex and drugs can often lead to serious health consequences related to sexually transmitted diseases and early substance abuse disorders.  Driving and impulsivity can have life or death consequences.   Research has shown significant risk of accidents in those who have ADHD possibly related to the weaker executive function skills, specifically impulsivity and inattention. Meanwhile, drunk driving due to impulsivity in drinking alcohol is the primary reason for engagement in various incidents of road accidents. Impulsivity in choices regarding career can lead to taking and quitting jobs more often.  This can be disastrous.  Binge-eating on food can impact your health and well being, leading to obesity or other eating disorders. Bingeing on things can hurt your good credit.

How to Self-Manage Impulsivity in Teens and Adults

Impulsivity is an intrinsic trait in part due to some of the brain wiring for many with ADHD. With this in mind, here are a few steps to follow to help you self manage your impulsivity and stay on track.   

When you practice this continuously you set yourself up for more success in achieving your goals and bring longer term happiness and peace to your life. 

  • Begin to think about the areas of your life that may not be going so well.  Those areas where you often have struggles or feel like you are “putting out fires”
  • Observing yourself presently and experiences in the past that may be related to impulsivity
  • Think about the scenarios and consider whether or not impulsivity is playing a role
  • Journaling is a great way to do this, talking with friends or work with a coach.

Once you uncover some areas impacted by impulsivity you can try the following tactics

  1. Use the  power of the pause, one of the key lessons that those with ADHD can learn! Taking the time in the moment to pause and ask yourself  the key question….. Does this help me, serve me, or get me to where I want to be in my life.  
    • There is such a thing as having a pause button - if you do not know what to do or think that the action will not “serve” you then hit that pause button.  
  2. Waiting it out and delaying the action often results in a different choice later on
    • Try to let things pass by even just for a few hours.  
    • Delay tactics allow you to identify the behaviors you want to changeUse a pro and con list and look at the results 
  3. Ask yourself the what, when, where, who, why, and how of the critical moments that allow you to act impulsively. 
  4. Self-awareness is key. Knowing those critical moments help you to understand when you need to pause and wait.
  5. Decide only when you are able to see things clearly and make an intelligent or wise long-lasting and impactful decision.
  6. If you need to - talk to a friend or pal to ask for opinions. Think twice or make second thoughts or even go over it a hundred times. Learn to ask for help from your friend or companion when making that important decision.

Seeking Professional Help

Begin at the beginning, and be sure you are receiving proper treatment for your ADHD symptoms.  Talk to your doctor about options that are right for you.  Medication, coaching, therapy, can all impact how your ADHD is managed.  Working with a coach can help you to quickly identify, clarify, and create strategies for managing any ADHD trait, especially impulsivity.  Programs created with a coach are specifically designed to be unique to you.  You can also work with a coach to develop your executive function skills that will support you further.  If you behaviors are especially risky do not delay, reach out for help today. 

Slowing down, being self aware, making discerned choices that come from organized thinking are all very hard for folks with ADHD.  These involve many of the executive functions such as metacognition, emotional regulation, organization, cognitive flexibility, prioritizing, goal directed persistence.


Feel free to message me for assistance and guidance.  You are NOT alone….I am here for you!  There are many who can help you in your journey in achieving your goals and living your best life!  Life is not all about fighting the battle alone. It is about being on the journey with others!   WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER!

Now not all impulsive behaviors and choices lead us down the wrong path.... as a matter of fact I wrote about that recently and what it looks like in my blog article "Impulsivity Gone Right" 

Feel your life with wonder and adventure. You can become who you want to be. It may take time and effort  but the journey will be worth it!  Let's journey together.


Love to all,



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