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Impulsivity in Children and Mood Disorders

Impulsivity May Put a Child at Risk for Depression


Updated August 31, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Impulsivity in children has been frequently linked to such externalizing disorders as ADD/ADHD, conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. However, researchers and clinicians also recognize that it is common in internalizing disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In fact, impulsivity may actually be a risk factor for developing depression.

What Is Impulsivity?

Impulsivity is a reaction to an outside event. A highly impulsive child may not think about her reactions or the consequences. These quick reactions often lead to problems, including difficulty in school, troubled friendships and difficult family relationships.

Mood Disorders and Impulsivity

One of the hallmark symptoms of bipolar disorder in children is impulsivity. As such, it has been thought that bipolar disorder leads to impulsive behaviors. Impulsive behaviors like anger and aggression are also seen in major depressive disorder. In fact, one study of childhood depression found that parents of depressed children reported more instances of their children being significantly impulsive than did parents of non-depressed children.

Impulsivity as a Risk Factor for Depression

Although impulsivity is frequently named as a symptom of mood disorders in children, some research supports that impulsivity may actually be a stable personality characteristic in depressed children across depressive, manic (hypomanic) and normal phases. These findings suggest that impulsivity may actually be a risk factor for developing a mood disorder in the future.

Impulsivity and Depression Treatments

Some depression treatments are credited with alleviating impulsive behaviors in children. However, impulsivity is also associated with non-compliance with depression treatments, sometimes making recovery more difficult to achieve. Also, if you notice that your child begins to act very impulsively after treatment with antidepressant medication, it is important to speak with her provider as soon as possible.

What Parents Can Do

Be aware of impulsive behaviors in your child. These behaviors may serve as an early warning sign for a future disorder if no other symptoms are present. As such, discuss impulsivity or other behaviors with your child's pediatrician or mental health provider. Ensuring that your child is diagnosed properly by a professional and is compliant with her treatment will contribute to her overall recovery.


Hana Zouk, Michel Tousignant, Monique Seguin, Alain Lesage, Gustavo Turecki. Characterization of Impulsivity in Suicide Completers: Clinical, Behavioral and Psychosocial Dimensions. Journal of Affective Disorders. June 2006. 92(2): 195-204. 

M.A.M. Peluso, J.P. Hatch, D.C. Glahn, E.S. Monkul, M. Sanches, P. Najt, C.L., Bowden, E.S., Baratt, J.C. Soares. Brief Report: Trait Impulsivity in Patients with Mood Disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2007; 100: 227-331. 

Sandra Cosi, Carmen Hernandez-Martinez, Josepa Canals, Andreu Vigil-Colet. Impulsivity and Internalizing Disorders in Childhood. Psychiatry Research. 2011. In Press.

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  4. Who's at Risk?
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  6. Child Depression
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  8. Impulsivity in Children

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