Impulse control disorders are conditions where people have impulses that are difficult or impossible to resist. These can range from emotional reactions, which may include taking things that do not belong to them (kleptomania), or an urge to set fires (pyromania).
This article explores what impulse control disorders are, the different types, signs and symptoms, causes, treatments, and how to prevent them.
Having a sudden impulse or desire to do something is a trait that most people share. However, those with impulse control disorders find it extremely difficult or impossible to regulate their impulses or desires.
These impulse control disorders can negatively impact a person’s quality of life, but people can manage symptoms with treatment.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes five formal disorders that fall under the definition of an impulse control disorder.
Oppositional defiant disorder
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is commonly a childhood behavior disorder. Those with this condition find it difficult to control their emotions or behaviors. Around 2–11% of children in the United States have this disorder, and it is more common in preadolescent males than females.
People with ODD usually start experiencing symptoms between the ages of 5–10, and symptoms may go away as they get older.
Intermittent explosive disorder
Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) occurs most commonly in late childhood or the teenage years. People with this condition have brief moments of anger and aggression that appear to be disproportionate to the trigger. The cause may not be noticeable to anyone other than the person with IED.
Conduct disorder (CD) is an impulse control disorder that usually develops during childhood or adolescence. People with this condition tend to be rebellious, disobedient, and aggressive.
Around 2–10% of children and teens in the U.S. have this disorder, and it is more common in males than females. People with this condition are also more likely to have attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, and developmental disorders.
People who have kleptomania have an impulse to take possessions that do not belong to them. The condition can present at any age and is more likely to affect females than males.
Pyromania is a rare impulse control disorder where people become fascinated by fire and all things related to fire. They often have a compulsion to set things alight. Pyromania is more common in teenagers and adults, while males are more likely to have this condition than females.
People with pyromania are more likely to have mood disorders and learning disabilities.
The following are the indications and symptoms of impulse control disorders by type:
Signs and symptoms of ODD include:
- being disagreeable and disruptive
- becoming irritable and defiant
- defiant behavior that is often due to being asked to do chores or obey rules
Signs and symptoms of IED include:
- becoming easily frustrated
- being often well-behaved outside of explosive outbursts
- multiple verbal or physical outbursts that can result in injury or physical damage
Signs and symptoms of CD include:
- destruction of property
- lying to people
- illegal or criminal activity
- appearing manipulative or unemotional
Signs and symptoms of kleptomania include:
- stealing items that are not needed or items of little to no value
- feeling a compulsion to steal
- often feeling guilty or depressed after stealing
- experiencing feelings of relief after stealing
Signs and symptoms of pyromania include:
- tension just before setting a fire
- feeling a compulsion to set fires
- fire-setting that is not a response to anger or vengeance
Researchers are not sure what triggers the development of an impulse control disorder. However, evidence suggests that genetic and environmental factors may increase the risk.
Children with ODD often have parents who have mood disorders. People with CD are more likely to have parents who have schizophrenia, ADHD, antisocial personality disorder, or parents who misuse substances.
However, it is possible that this family makeup causes an unstable environment, which increases the risk of children developing an impulse control disorder, rather than being a genetic factor.
Environmental factors that can increase the likelihood of developing impulse control disorders include:
- coming from a family with low socioeconomic status
- coming from a place with community violence
- a lack of structure in the home and school
- neglectful or abusive environment
- having friends that partake in deviant or illegal activities
Parents and caregivers can use strategies to manage symptoms of impulse control disorders. These include:
- not giving positive reinforcement for impulse control disorder behaviors
- encouraging children and teenagers to take an interest in helping their community and society
- avoiding physical discipline
- remaining consistent when parenting
Several types of therapy can help parents and children with these strategies, such as parent management training, multisystemic therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Some doctors may prescribe mood stabilizers, antidepressants, or other medications to manage symptoms.
Research has found that boot camps or sudden imprisonment do not help manage impulse control disorders and can worsen issues.
As impulse control disorders could occur due to genetic and environmental factors, prevention is not certain.
However, parents and caregivers could minimize symptoms from becoming worse by taking a child or teenager with a suspected impulse control disorder to a healthcare professional. Doctors will be able to suggest a treatment plan.
There are five specific types of impulse control disorder recognized by the DSM-5, each with their own signs and symptoms.
People with these conditions struggle to keep their impulses in check, which may negatively impact their quality of life.
However, they can work with healthcare professionals to manage their symptoms. Treatment options usually involve some form of therapy, such as CBT, to help counteract behaviors around impulse control.