Strange Impulsive Behavior in Children

By Shellie Braeuner
Sometimes a child's behavior doesn't seem to make sense.
Sometimes a child's behavior doesn't seem to make sense.

Impulsive behavior is not unusual among very young children. But for some, it can last longer. Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University, explains that impulsive behavior arises when a child is unwilling to wait for a desired outcome. Some impulsive behavior can seem odd or strange to parents, even if they fulfill a desire for the child.


Pica is the desire to eat nonfood items, including dirt, stones, paper or plastic. Pica is more than just a child putting an object in his mouth. Instead, children with pica might crave the item for more than a month. According to the KidsHealth website, pica is a common eating disorder -- one in four children might have it. Children with poor impulse control can give in to those cravings more quickly than nonimpulsive children. Any child who shows symptoms of pica should see a pediatrician. Pica can signal nutrition deficiencies that can be remedied through a healthful diet. Pica with poor impulse control might also be a sign of autism or other forms of developmental delays.


Masturbation is a typical part of childhood. Many children explore their own body as early as toddlerhood and discover that manipulating their genitals is pleasurable. According to the University of Michigan Health System, almost all boys and about half of all girls have masturbated by the time they are 15 years of age. However, when masturbation is coupled with impulsive behavior, it can create awkward circumstances. Young children might not have a clear understanding of sexuality, so they might not understand why masturbating in public is wrong. It is vital that parents discuss the concept of privacy with children.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by intense obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors that interfere with a person's daily activities. While most people with OCD are diagnosed in adolescence, children might start to show signs in early childhood. In children, obsessive behavior can manifest itself through anxiety. The child might justify the compulsion as protecting himself or his family from some unnamed fear. For example, a child who fears germs or shots might compulsively wash his hands. Impulsive children might find it more difficult to resist the compulsion to act. OCD is a brain disorder and tends to run in families. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests early help with the child’s anxiety and compulsive thoughts can change the child’s behavior.

Managing Impulsive Behavior

Regardless of the behavior, parent can take several steps to help reduce impulsiveness in children. Help the child delay gratification by asking her to stop, count and think. The first step is to stop before she engages in the behavior. Then she counts to 10 and thinks about the consequences of the action. Over time, she will stop acting impulsively and choose her behavior more carefully. Another way to help impulsive children is to structure the child’s day to fit the child’s needs. For example, if she is more focused in the morning, use that time for study and exploration. If she becomes more impulsive in the afternoon, keep those hours heavily scheduled so she is distracted from her own impulsive behavior. When she knows what will happen throughout the day, she can relax and feel less anxious.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Shellie Braeuner has been writing articles since 1986 on topics including child rearing, entertainment, politics and home improvement. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and "Borderlines" as well as a book from Simon & Schuster. Braeuner holds a Master of Education in developmental counseling from Vanderbilt University.