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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: What is Impulsivity?

by Douglas Cowan, Psy.D.


Impulsivity is one of the hallmarks of people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This impulsivity is the result of the brain's decreased ability to inhibit. There is a lack of self-control even at the neurological level. Impulsivity is found in two areas. There is behavioral impulsivity, and there is cognitive impulsivity.

Behavioral impulsivity would involve actions, what one does. ADHD er's with behavioral impulsivity don't stop and think first before they act. No matter how many times you tell this kid, "stop and think first," the next time the situation comes up, he may well do the same impulsive thing again.

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Kids with ADHD often aren't learning from their past mistakes. Their learning threshold is very high, and if you don't excite them, or motivate them enough to get them above that learning threshold, they don't learn, and they make the same the same mistake again and again.

ADHD er's with behavioral impulsivity act without thinking first, cut in line, can't wait their turn in line or in a game, blurt out answers in class, speak when they're supposed to be quiet, maybe show aggressive behaviors, are often a little too loud, and sometimes fights. They often have poor social skills, which of course is the death socially for teenagers with ADHD. They impulsively say the wrong thing at the wrong time. They can get one date, but they can't get the second date because they might impulsively blurt out something goofy, and then say, "Why did I say that?" Other teens are asking, "Who is this guy?" and often begin to avoid him.



Also, sometimes these kids fail to learn those subtle social cues that everybody else has learned, and so they're socially awkward and often don't know why.

Cognitive impulsivity is different. One with cognitive impulsivity is impulsive at the neurological level. This means that they guess a lot. In fact, guessing is their problem solving method of choice.

Cognitively impulsive ADHD kids will make a multiple number of guesses in a short period of time. On a matching task, or if you give them multiple choices orally, you'll see them guess for the right answer very quickly, "it's this one, no, its this one, no, wait, its this one," until finally you step in and, when he guesses right, you'll say, "That's it!" Of course this just reinforces his guessing.

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These cognitively impulsive ADHD kids have very limited problem solving strategies. They don't stop and look and the problem and then say, "Well, I could do it this way first, then do that, then I'll be done." They don't approach problem solving that way. They usually just guess and let trial and error take its course. Now remember, being fast is not a problem. Some have pointed out that "being fast and accurate is good." It's fast and inaccurate that is a problem.

Impulsive kids are often seen interrupting others in conversations, or blurting out answers in class. They often have trouble waiting their turn in games, or have trouble lining up at school. They just don't wait... or think...before they act. To learn how to help children, teens, and even adults who have problems with impulsivity, visit the ADHD Information Library.



About the Author:
Douglas Cowan, Psy.D., is a family therapist who has been working with ADHD children and their families since 1986. He is the clinical director of the ADHD Information Library's family of seven web sites, including http://www.newideas.net, helping over 350,000 parents and teachers learn more about ADHD each year. Dr. Cowan also serves on the Medical Advisory Board of VAXA International of Tampa, FL., is President of the Board of Directors for KAXL 88.3 FM in central California, and is President of NewIdeas.net Incorporated.


Anthony Kane, MD

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