What are Impulse Control Disorders?

Impulse Control Disorders (ICDs) are a range of conditions characterized by difficulties in maintaining emotional and behavioral self-control. They involve compulsive behaviors and uncontrollable anger, going beyond a mere lack of willpower. The intensity of the urge to engage in maladaptive behaviors is often likened to obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD). Typically, there are five stages in the cycle of impulsivity, which are

  1. The emergence of the urge to engage in the unhealthy behavior.
  2. The intensification of the urge until it becomes irresistible.
  3. A brief moment of pleasure experienced during the engagement in the behavior.
  4. Relief felt after satisfying the urge.
  5. Subsequent feelings of guilt and shame once the person gains clarity.

This cyclic pattern persists, despite the individual's strong desire to stop it. In some cases, these behaviors become so compulsive that they dominate a person's life, hindering their ability to function in society.

What causes Impulse Control Disorders?

Researchers are continuously gaining insights into the causes of Impulse Control Disorders (ICDs). Presently, they believe that various factors contribute to their development, including


Studies indicate a correlation between children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and biological parents with mood disorders. Similarly, children with Conduct Disorder are more likely to have biological parents with schizophrenia, ADHD, Substance Use Disorder (SUD), or Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPDs), suggesting a role for genetic factors.


Environmental factors, such as low socioeconomic status, community violence, childhood neglect, exposure to abuse (either experienced or witnessed), and association with deviant peers or friends, have been identified in studies as potential contributors to ICDs.


Some studies highlight abnormal changes in brain activity or hormonal levels (such as cortisol) in individuals with ICDs.

Symptoms of Impulse Control Disorders

Each Impulse Control Disorder (ICD) presents distinct signs and symptoms, yet they share a common feature of diminished ability to regulate one's behavior, often resulting in negative consequences for others or legal transgressions. Individuals with ICDs typically recognize the inappropriateness of their actions but struggle to curb them. There's usually a buildup of internal tension before the impulsive behavior occurs, followed by a sense of relief or catharsis afterward.

One way to conceptualize ICDs is as externalizing behaviors, where individuals outwardly express resentment and hostility, leading to conflicts with others or legal issues. This distinguishes them from other mental health conditions like anxiety and mood disorders, where distress is more commonly internalized.

It's crucial to note that occasional defiance is a normal part of childhood development as kids test boundaries. However, ICDs involve a persistent pattern of significantly more severe behaviors that disrupt daily life and strain relationships.

Types of Impulse Control Disorders

There are five classifications of Impulse Control Disorders, which are categorized as

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

This condition involves a continuing pattern of uncooperative, defiant and sometimes hostile behavior toward people in authority.

Conduct Disorder

This condition involves an ongoing pattern of aggression toward others. Children with this condition may also show serious violations of rules and social norms at home, in school and with peers.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

This condition involves frequent impulsive anger outbursts or aggression that cause significant distress.


This is a mental health condition in which you feel an overpowering, irresistible urge to steal things. People who have this disorder know that stealing is wrong and could get them into trouble, but they can’t stop themselves.


This is a mental health condition in which you can’t resist the urge to start fires. You know the fires are harmful, but you can’t control the impulse to start one. People with pyromania feel tension before setting fires and a release after. They don’t start fires for any other reason than the release.

Diagnosing Impulse Control Disorders

Serene Mental Health Clinic is your source for diagnosing Impulse Control Disorders.

Impulse Control Disorders are diagnosed using specially designed interview and assessment tools to check for mental and behavioral conditions. Signs and symptoms of an ICD are usually required to be present for at least 6 to 12 months for diagnosis. In addition, these symptoms must cause significant clinical stress that disrupts daily life.

Reports from people close to the individual may be relied upon to get a full understanding of the impulsive behavior.

Treating Impulse Control Disorders

Serene Mental Health Clinic is your source for prescribing treatment for Impulse Control Disorders.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t approve any medications for impulse control disorders. So treatment mainly involves therapy and parenting strategy adjustments.

Helpful parenting strategies for ICDs include

  • Reducing positive reinforcement of undesirable behavior
  • Encouraging behaviors that involve feeling empathy and concern for others (prosocial behaviors)
  • Using nonviolent discipline
  • Making consistent, predictable parenting decisions

Specific therapies that may help include

Parent Management Training (PMT)

PMT involves teaching parents or caregivers techniques to help their child improve behaviors and learn new skills. The goal of this therapy is to set consistent discipline with proper rewarding of positive behaviors.

Multisystemic Therapy (MST)

This type of therapy uses family strengths to encourage positive coping activities. A licensed therapist works with the parents or caregivers to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce negative behaviors. They help the family increase accountability and problem-solving.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a structured, goal-oriented type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) used for the child with an ICD along with parent management. During CBT, a therapist helps the child take a close look at their thoughts and emotions. They’ll come to understand how their thoughts affect their actions. Through CBT, they can unlearn negative thoughts and behaviors and learn to adopt healthier thinking patterns.