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Impulse Control Disorder Child Symptoms

By J. Lucy Boyd ; Updated August 14, 2017

Impulse control disorders are mental illnesses that can affect children and adults. The symptoms are often alarming to parents, who might interpret the symptoms as serious misbehavior and delay seeking treatment. Children with untreated impulse control disorders are at risk of being incarcerated or hospitalized for lengthy periods.


According to the book "Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing," impulse control disorders have three components. The symptoms represent a failure to control an impulse that results in harm to the child or others. Secondly, the child has an increasingly strong stimulus prior to committing the act, such as tension or sexual arousal. Finally, the child feels release, pleasure or sexual gratification while acting on the impulse.


The main types of impulse control disorder include kleptomania, intermittent explosive disorder, pyromania, trichotillomania and pathological gambling. Each of these disorders might begin in childhood or adolescence. The severity of symptoms usually increases over time, regardless of type.

Common Symptoms

The child might steal items from family members, friends or stores. explains that the stolen paraphernalia might have no use or value to the child. These thefts usually happen repeatedly until the acts are discovered and the child is treated. Another symptom is sudden, explosive violence against others or the property of others. Fire-starting is symptomatic of an impulse control disorder. A child who starts fires may display a fascination with watching things burn. He might begin by setting small fires in leaves and escalate to homes and buildings. Hair pulling is also indicative of a problem with impulse control. This usually involves the hair on the head or the eyelashes or eyebrows. The child may suffer significant hair loss. Accompanying symptoms include head banging, skin scratching and nail biting. While rare among children, a pathological need to gamble might be present in an older child who has the opportunity to gamble with peers or adults. He might lose his allowance or electronic games to gambling or he might acquire the property of other children in this manner.

Potential Causes

Impulse control disorders can be attributed to one of several causes. "Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing" describes brain trauma, dysfunctional family dynamics, mental retardation and a strong fear of abandonment as potential causes or predisposing factors. Children with these symptoms often exhibit low-self esteem and poor social skills, although these are not known to be direct causes. Often, the child has had a major loss, such as the loss of a parent to death or divorce.


Treatment for impulse control disorder is often aimed at controlling symptoms. Common treatments include medications, cognitive behavior therapy, which helps the child become aware of her feelings and learn to substitute more appropriate behaviors, aversion therapy, which gives the child a negative stimulus when tempted to commit a harmful act, and group therapy, in which children with similar issues discuss the development of better coping methods for dealing with stress.

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