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Impulsivity as a Sign of Childhood Depression

How to Recognize Impulsive Behavior in Children


Updated August 27, 2011

Impulsivity is not uncommon in children, which is why many parents want to learn more about this behavior.

Impulsivity describes a person's reaction to an outside event. An impulsive behavior is a quick reaction without much pause for thought or consideration.

Types of Impulsivity 

Impulsivity is actually a spectrum of behaviors - ranging from mild to extremely impulsive. When referring to impulsivity, the connotation is usually negative; however, this is not always true. Impulsivity is usually associated with quick, possibly aggressive and not well-thought out reactions, often without regard for consequences. This particular type of impulsivity is considered motor impulsivity or dysfunctional impulsivity, and is associated with several types of disorders, including childhood depression and childhood bipolar disorder. It is thought that this type of impulsivity is a stable (unchanging) personality trait of many children with mood disorders

For example, a child high in motor impulsivity might react very quickly to being told "no." He or she might yell, stomp around or even hit, all without stopping to think that these behaviors might result in punishment. A highly impulsive child may repeatedly react negatively to the same situation, even though he or she has received negative consequences for each of his or her reactions.

On the other hand, researchers and clinicians have identified cognitive impulsivity as a separate and different type of impulsivity. This kind of impulsivity features quick thinking and reactions, but it usually results in an appropriate response. For example, a child high in cognitive impulsivity might score highly on a timed analytic standardized test section because he or she made quick but strategic and appropriate decisions.

Identifying Impulsivity

Impulsivity in its extreme states is often very easy to identify, especially by parents, caretakers and teachers. In fact, parents of depressed children more often report instances of impulsivity in their kids than do parents of non-depressed children

Children high in motor impulsivity may be described as "quick tempered," "hot headed" or "unpredictable." However, a child high in cognitive impulsivity may be described as a "quick thinker" or "good under pressure."

Researchers and clinicians use observations, parent reports, standardized assessments and interviews to determine a child's level of impulsivity.

If you believe that your child has a high level of impulsivity that contributes to repeated negative consequences or has other symptoms of depression, it is important to speak to a pediatrician or mental health provider. A healthcare professional can determine whether or not depression or another disorder may be playing a role.


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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