About five years ago, a young client walked reluctantly into Jennifer Skinner’s office. In addition to impulse-control issues, the 10-year-old had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), struggled with issues around being adopted, and had medical concerns. This long list meant the boy was often being told what to do and felt powerless.
Shortly after the boy’s parents dropped him off, he walked out of Skinner’s office and headed toward his house a few blocks away. Skinner, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Kettle Moraine Counseling in Wisconsin, quickly followed. She told him she wasn’t going to stop him from going home, but she was going to make sure he got there safely. Hearing this, the boy circled back to Skinner’s office and locked her out. Skinner stayed calm, and eventually he let her back in.
According to prevalence data cited by Psych Central, 10.5% of Americans have an impulse-control disorder. Even so, Skinner, a licensed professional school counselor who works with students with self-esteem, impulse-control and other social-emotional issues, says that impulsiveness is often poorly understood or is not on people’s radar. She rarely has clients present and tell her they are impulsive.
Similarly, Laura Galinis, an LPC in private practice in Georgia, affirms that when she uses the term impulsivity to describe her work with clients, she is frequently met with blank stares.
Impulsiveness comes from an internal place in which individuals either react without thought or can’t stop themselves from doing the impulsive behavior, says Skinner, a member of the American Counseling Association. Sometimes, if these individuals don’t yell or lash out, they will be left feeling unsatisfied, she adds.
Edward F. Hudspeth, an associate dean of counseling at Southern New Hampshire University, acknowledges that “some impulsivity is just a natural part of growing up [and] learning from situations.” It becomes a problem, however, when repeated consequences and societal pressures have no impact on the person’s impulsive behavior. “Basically,” adds Hudspeth, a member of ACA, “you’re saying that everyone around you and even consequences are of no value to change [your] behavior. It’s just, ‘I’m going to be impulsive,’ and nothing seems to stop this.”
According to Galinis, impulsivity is an inclusive term that describes the ways that people disconnect from themselves, their relationships and their reality. The majority of her clients come in because they are having relationship problems or because someone suggested they seek help. She finds that “the deeper root is not really feeling present when you make decisions.” To her, this means that impulsive behavior can take several forms, including sleeping with lots of people indiscriminately or drinking or spending more than one wants to.
Because impulsivity can be broadly defined, Galinis recommends asking clients what they mean when they say they struggle with impulsivity. She also suggests questions that will help counselors determine whether a client’s impulsivity has gone too far:
- Has the client been unsuccessful in attempts to fix the impulsive behavior?
- What consequences is the client facing because of impulse-control issues?
- Is the client’s impulsive behavior causing problems in relationships, with finances or with work?
- Does the client’s impulsivity stem from not setting parameters, or is the client disassociated and being prompted to engage in behaviors he or she may not want to do?
- Is there a pattern with the client’s impulsivity? Does it show up in just one relationship or across the board?
Impulsivity across the life span
Impulse-control disorders are often first diagnosed in childhood, but as Hudspeth points out, they can occur across the life span.
Children with impulse-control issues will often act on impulsive desires because their prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse control, has yet to fully develop, explains Hudspeth, who is both an LPC and a registered pharmacist. In adults, he finds that impulsive behavior shifts in terms of its intensity. For example, impulsive behaviors that showed as verbal outbursts and some physical aggression as a child would develop into something more disruptive and destructive as an adult, he says.
Galinis, whose specialty areas include impulsivity and trauma, agrees that some people remain impulsive into adulthood unless treated. Impulse-control issues just look different across age ranges, she says. Often, adults can hide or delay the consequences of impulsive behavior because they are more independent, typically coordinating their own schedules, funding their own lifestyles and so on, she says. Teenagers, on the other hand, may be referred to counseling because they are spending too much time on their phones in school. But with adults, the impulsivity progresses beyond simple phone addiction to behaviors that cause relationship issues, such as an impulse to watch pornography or to spend money online.
Shifting societal norms for young adults have created a different developmental stage, known as emerging adulthood, for people ages 18-26, says Hudspeth, co-author of a chapter on impulse-control disorders and interventions for college students in the book College Student Mental Health Counseling: A Developmental Approach. He explains that members of this age group aren’t at the same level of brain development that they would have been 30 years ago. That’s in part because they no longer feel pressured to instantly get a job in their early 20s and start a family, he says. Instead, they often have a period of exploration before emerging as adults.
“Add that to impulsivity, and you get a lot of chaos and a lot of strange behaviors,” Hudspeth continues. “They’re adults. They have adult rights. They can consent to things. They can do things without the approval of someone else, so it presents the opportunity for a lot more riskiness and impulsivity.” For example, it’s not uncommon for these young adults to engage in impulsive behaviors such as taking a last-minute vacation while trying to hold down a job.
Hudspeth, president-elect of the Association for Creativity in Counseling, a division of ACA, points out that impulse-control disorders have morphed over the past three versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), so diagnosing and treating impulsivity can be challenging. In 2013, the DSM-5 published a new chapter on “Disruptive, Impulse-Control and Conduct Disorders.” Intermittent explosive disorder, pyromania, kleptomania, conduct disorders and ODD were included under that heading. At the same time, disorders such as gambling, sexual addiction and trichotillomania were moved out of the impulsive category.
The new DSM-5 chapter attempts to limit the misconception that impulsivity is only a childhood issue by bringing in the developmental perspective and detailing that these disorders can also show up in different forms in adolescence and adulthood, Hudspeth says. In fact, while doing research for a book chapter in Treating Disruptive Disorders: A Guide to Psychological, Pharmacological and Combined Therapies, Hudspeth found that intermittent explosive disorder is often underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed because it was previously included in a chapter on childhood disorders in the DSM.
Counseling professionals need to be aware that impulse-control disorders can occur across the life span and not just during a particular developmental phase, he says.
Symptom or disorder?
For counselors, the challenge is not necessarily determining whether a client is impulsive but rather figuring out if impulsivity is the main presenting issue or a symptom of other issues such as substance use, ADHD or trauma, Hudspeth says. For this reason, the initial intake and assessment are crucial with regard to impulsivity. Hudspeth advises counselors to look beyond clients’ observable impulsive behaviors to try to figure out what is initiating those behaviors. Why and in what situations are clients being impulsive?
Skinner says it is common to see dual diagnosis with impulse issues. For example, ODD, conduct disorders, eating disorders, addiction and ADHD all have impulse control as a symptom.
Galinis finds that trauma is often an underlying cause of impulsivity. In fact, she says she has yet to see a client struggling with impulsivity who doesn’t also have some trauma attached to it.
Hudspeth concurs: “Trauma and abuse will make a person very hypervigilant and impulsive, and if it’s just treated as an impulse-control disorder, you’re never getting to the core issue.” He advises counselors to ask clients whether a history of trauma, abuse or neglect is connected to their impulsive behavior, either directly or indirectly. If there is, then counselors should approach impulsivity from a different perspective than they would if it were just part of ODD, ADHD or another disorder.
In addition, Hudspeth suggests asking clients the following questions: What is their developmental history? What was their temperament as a child (e.g., easy to soothe, difficulty eating or sleeping)? Where does the impulsive behavior occur (e.g., at school, at home, in the community, everywhere)? Is the person generally well-controlled but then suddenly explode? Does the person make spur-of-the-moment decisions such as taking a weeklong vacation at the drop of a hat?
Because inadequate sleep can make it more difficult to manage impulses, counselors should also ask clients about their sleeping habits, Skinner adds.
It also can be beneficial, if given consent by the client, to speak with others who are around the client on a regular basis, Hudspeth says. All of these situational factors can help counselors determine how best to treat the impulsive behavior, he explains.
Contextual factors such as culture, gender and socioeconomic status also can play a role. Hudspeth points out that every culture perceives and deals with impulsivity differently, so counselors need to consider these factors too. For example, are clients being impulsive because they feel they may never have that experience again or because they’ve never had that experience before and thus don’t have a tool in their toolbox to deal with it? “If it’s an experience that you don’t have on a regular basis and your brain hasn’t collected enough evidence on how to deal with it, then you [may be] impulsive,” Hudspeth observes.
Some recent studies suggest that living in poverty can lead people to opt for short-term rather than long-term rewards. For example, the well-known marshmallow experiment (in which a child’s ability to delay gratification of eating a marshmallow predicted better life outcomes) has recently been challenged by Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan’s 2018 study that aligns one’s social and economic background with the ability to delay gratification.
Factors such as trauma, depression and poverty can all affect people’s abilities to regulate their impulses and can make it difficult for them to see the world outside of themselves, Skinner adds.
Thus, to get a better sense of clients’ skills for handing their impulses, counselors should ask how they respond in new or unfamiliar situations, Hudspeth says.
Hudspeth also warns counselors not to latch on to the initial report or diagnosis too quickly when it comes to impulse-control issues. “There’s a lot more behind it than just the symptoms that somebody has reported,” he explains. “It takes a thorough comprehensive intake with assessment and then the willingness to more or less change as you know more.” He advises counselors to consider the first 90 days with the client as a continual period of assessment in which the diagnosis could change as the counselor learns more.
The shame of impulsivity
With impulse-control disorders, the client’s distress can adversely affect the well-being and safety of others and even violate others’ rights (through aggression or destruction of property, for example).
Impulse control “is one of those disorders that could be considered to be both internal and external,” Hudspeth says. “Internally, you’re not stopping yourself from doing something that’s impulsive. Externally, you’re affecting others. You’re in their space. You may be disruptive. You may be yelling. The origins are internal, but how it displays and who it affects is the individual and everybody around them.”
People who struggle with impulsivity often act without thinking and frequently lament their actions almost immediately afterward, which means their lives might be filled with regret, Skinner says. That consistent presence of regret can turn into shame, she adds.
In fact, one huge warning sign that clients’ impulsivity is getting out of hand is when they try to keep their impulsive behaviors a secret, Galinis points out. Even clients with whom she is familiar will sometimes mention impulsive behaviors they have been hiding from her, especially if they involve vulnerable topics such as sexual behavior or addiction. This secrecy results from the sense of shame these clients feel over their behavior and lack of impulse control, she says.
When clients mention being anxious or having uncomfortable emotions, counselors should check in to see how they are handling those emotions, Galinis advises. Asking how clients are coping often opens a door into the unhealthy and impulsive ways they are attempting to manage those feelings, she adds.
With her younger clients who have trouble identifying and communicating their feelings, Skinner likes to read books such as Bryan Smith’s What Were You Thinking? Learning to Control Your Impulses, about a boy whose impulsivity often gets him in trouble. Eventually, the boy learns to control his impulses by thinking about the possible consequences of his actions.
“Reading stories with clients, especially with children, takes the focus off of them, helps them realize they’re not the only person who is struggling with [impulsivity], and shows them possible solutions,” she says.
Engaging emotions and the senses
Impulse control “is not often based in logic,” Galinis says. “It is an emotional experience that drives the behavior, so we need to be able to incorporate the emotions into it because logic is going to fall short every time.” Counselors can’t simply tell people to stop being impulsive. Instead, she explains, they have to help clients understand their emotions and connect them to their behaviors.
“Sometimes we will act on an emotion before we even realize that we are having that emotion,” Skinner notes. For instance, a child might instinctively yell when a teacher enforces limits on the child. Children don’t necessarily know how to handle their feelings when someone makes them mad, so they just react, Skinner explains.
Thus, a large part of her work with clients involves helping them understand their emotions. “Just being able to name your emotions takes … the reactive part of the brain offline and allows your executive functioning to come into play more, and as soon as your executive functioning is coming into play, you’re going to have a better response to the situation,” Skinner says.
She often uses the Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out to explain to younger clients how each emotion has a purpose. “Emotions don’t just happen out of the blue,” she says. “They happen because we have a need that needs to be met.”
To help clients develop a habitual awareness of their emotions, Galinis has clients pick a number on the clock in her office. Then, she tells them that every time they see that number anywhere throughout the course of their day, they should check in on how they are feeling in the moment.
Skinner also gets creative to help clients better understand and name their emotions. For instance, she asks clients to play feelings charades (in which they name and act out all of the feelings they can think of). She also has clients look through magazines and find different emotions on people’s faces. Sometimes, she has clients make up stories about why the person in the magazine feels that way. “That [exercise] helps develop empathy and perspective taking, and both of those things are really important in treating impulse-control disorders,” she says.
Skinner also advises parents and caregivers to continue these exercises at home by pausing when reading stories or watching television to discuss characters’ emotions. She recommends asking questions such as “What do you think this person is feeling right now?” and “Why is the person feeling this way?”
She explains that guiding clients to develop a broad, robust vocabulary about their emotions will help them learn over time to act, not just react, when they are feeling impulsive.
Slowing the process down
Because impulsivity is a quick response, Galinis’ goal is to help clients slow down. She wants clients to connect to their feelings without flooding their emotions, she says. To help clients achieve this balance, she often uses somatic experiencing, which aims to regulate or reset the nervous system by releasing the energy accumulated during stressful events.
For example, if a client is talking about an event that was triggering during the week, Galinis may stop the client upon noticing that he or she is getting agitated and ask what the client is feeling in the body. If the client responds, “My hands are clenched,” she will direct the client to hold that feeling and then ask what the clients wants to do. The client may say, “I want to punch something.” Then, with Galinis’ help, the client will follow through with the punch in slow motion. According to Galinis, this technique helps clients get “unstuck” so they can fully process their impulse and the emotions in their body.
Galinis also has clients create a timeline of feelings and actions surrounding an impulsive behavior. For example, she may have clients walk her through what they noticed from the moment they woke up until the moment they impulsively started watching pornography, even though they hadn’t planned to or didn’t want to. As they talk through this event, she will ask what they notice in their body. Is their heart rate elevated? Does their stomach feel swirly?
If clients notice a change in their body, Galinis tells them to hold on to the uncomfortable feeling for a minute rather than immediately trying to get rid of it or run away from it. This process helps clients build up distress tolerance so that when they’re feeling uncomfortable, they are less likely to feel the need to escape and act impulsively, she explains.
Like Galinis, Skinner uses behavioral sequencing to help clients connect their thoughts, feelings and actions. She asks clients: What is the problem? What happened before you acted out? What happened and what were you feeling during the impulsive behavior? What was the outcome? “Through that process, we try to figure out offramps from that one trajectory that they are on,” she says.
Skinner also finds mindfulness useful with impulse-control disorders because it helps clients understand what is happening in the body. She recommends the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, which engages the senses to help clients get back to the present. With this technique, counselors tell clients to take a deep breath and name five things they see, four things they feel, three things they hear, two things they smell and one thing they taste.
Skinner says meditation is one of her favorite tools for addressing impulsivity because it calms the nervous system down, which allows clients to make better choices instead of just reacting.
Galinis keeps tactile sensory objects such as stress balls, stuffed animals and a cozy blanket in the counseling room to make clients feel more comfortable and to help them calm their body down. Sometimes she even lets clients take a calming stone or an essential oil home with them because it serves as a tangible reminder of what they are working toward and aids them in finding that sense of calm they experienced in her office.
Learning control through play
Impulsive behaviors can frequently impede on the rights and safety of others. This means that many clients who enter counseling for impulsivity might not be there of their own accord. In fact, Skinner says that 95% of the time, her child and adolescent clients are seeing her at someone else’s suggestion.
Understanding that these clients may be reluctant participants in counseling, she uses creative counseling techniques such as games and role-playing. Any activity “where kids have to really stop and think about what their body is doing and pay attention to their surroundings is really helpful and fun” for them, she says. Games also help take the focus off of the client and their “problem,” she adds.
Skinner particularly likes to use the therapeutic board game Stop, Relax & Think with clients who struggle with impulse control. The objective of the game is to help impulsive children think before they act. Players move through the Feelings, Stop, Relax and Think stations on the board, collecting chips along the way.
With the feeling cards, clients name how they would feel in different situations. For example, if the card says, “Your brother hits you,” the client might respond, “I would be angry and want to hit him back.” The cards support clients in better understanding not only their own feelings but also the other players’ feelings, which helps them develop perspective taking, Skinner says.
When players land on a stop sign space, they have to perform an action such as patting their head and rubbing their stomach — which, as Skinner points out, requires a lot of concentration — until another player says, “Stop.” If the player stops immediately, then he or she gets a chip.
Skinner loves that clients can judge counselors when landing on this space. Children, especially ones with ODD, often feel powerless, she points out, and this stopping activity allows them to feel empowered in a safe, healthy way. Sometimes Skinner will purposely fail to stop in time. She wants clients to know that she’s not perfect and doesn’t expect them to be either. It also allows her to model appropriate behavior when someone is frustrated or makes a mistake.
The relax spaces on the board help clients learn how to calm their bodies. The space may instruct them to take three slow breaths, think about white clouds, or say “I am calm” three times. With the think cards, players come up with ways to handle different scenarios (such as a friend breaking their favorite toy) and earn a token if it is a good plan.
Skinner also uses games such as Uno and Parcheesi to help clients learn how to wait their turn and practice impulse control. In addition, she recommends basic childhood games such as Mother May I; Red Light, Green Light; Simon Says; and Follow the Leader. She says counselors can even stage relay races in which children have to walk carefully while balancing a marshmallow on a spoon. These types of games also work well for group counseling sessions, she adds.
Hudspeth, editor of the International Journal of Play Therapy and The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, agrees that games are a great way to help child and adolescent clients learn to focus and grasp that there is a sequence of events they must follow to get what they want. Take darts, for example. “Just throwing the dart at the wall is not going to get you points,” he says. “Taking time to aim at the place that’s going to get you the most points is more likely to get you to the place of winning the game.”
When sessions become impulsive
Sometime clients’ impulsive behaviors spill into the counseling session. When this happens, Skinner reminds counselors to be calm, ignore the bad behavior and reward the positive behavior.
When Skinner worked as a clinical intern at an outpatient clinic with youth who experienced trauma, she had clients whose impulsive and aggressive behavior resulted in overturned chairs and tables and smashed lamps in the office. When this happened in group settings, she would get the other kids out of the room and then make sure the child having the impulsive reaction stayed safe. Other than that, she would show no reaction to the outburst and praised the child when he or she calmed down and regained control.
Control is a big part of impulsivity, Hudspeth points out. For this reason, he uses play therapy, which provides clients with a sense of control but allows counselors to set limits and model appropriate behavior in a safe, trusting environment. For example, with children with impulsive behaviors, Hudspeth would tell them they were allowed to do anything in the playroom as long as they didn’t hurt themselves. This statement might not have been one hundred percent true, he says, but it helped the children feel a sense of control. Then, if a child picked up a Nerf gun and shot darts at him, he would respond, “I am not for shooting, and if you choose to shoot me, you choose not to play with that toy.” After setting this limit, he would offer the client an alternative (and more appropriate) behavior such as shooting the wall.
Skinner and Hudspeth both point out that counselors might also have to train parents to use this method at home to help their children make progress with the impulsive behavior. Often, people assume that children understand what is happening during the impulsive moment, so they may yell or remove children from the situation without giving them a reason, Hudspeth says. “By setting the limit and giving them the alternative and then telling them what the consequence is, you’ve spelled it all out,” he explains. “There’s nothing left to wonder about as a child.”
One realization Skinner had was that clients with impulse-control issues, and especially those with ODD and conduct disorder, could trigger her own impulsive and angry reactions. She acknowledges that sometimes it is difficult as a counselor to hear what certain clients are doing to other people or how they are reacting. In fact, she admits once making a snarky comment to an adult client who was rolling his eyes and being defiant throughout a session. Skinner says she instantly felt terrible and knew that her comment wasn’t helpful to the counseling process.
The experience taught Skinner that she has to temper her own impulses and focus on giving clients what they need in session. She says she also learned that she needs to take a moment between sessions to calm down and prepare for the next one. Even if all she has available is 30 seconds, she closes her door, takes a deep breath and centers herself.
It’s quite possible that counselors will face challenging moments with clients who struggle with impulse control. Five years later, Skinner is still working with the client who stormed out of the counseling session determined to walk home, only to turn around and lock her out of her own office. Thankfully, he has come a long way since that first meeting
Challenging sessions still occur in which the client comes in and won’t say a word. Skinner simply responds, “That’s OK. I guess this is going to be a quiet one. Let me know if you want to do anything.” Sometimes, the client will say that he wants to play a game.
“But within that space, he has learned how to control himself a little bit,” she says. “He has learned that he has some control over his life. He has found his voice … and he’s been able to assert himself with adults in a calmer and more appropriate way.”
Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
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