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Impulsivity, Explained

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Impulsivity, Explained

  • Julie Warshaw
  • October 3, 2017

ADHD impacts the way the different regions of the brain communicate. That affects inattention, impulsivity, and emotional regulation.

Impulsivity, a primary symptom of ADHD, may impair your ability to stop and think about the consequences before speaking or acting. How?

In this video, learn about the brain’s “response inhibition” center, and why it doesn’t work as well for people with ADHD.

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Impulsivity, Explained

Impulsivity: a tendency to act or speak on a whim.

An impulsive child may blurt out an answer before raising her hand.


Leap off the jungle gym without considering how or where he’ll land.


React to frustration or embarrassment with a punch or scream.

ADHD impairs your child’s ability to stop and consider the consequences before speaking or doing.


The thalamus area of the brain controls response inhibition.

It works like a gate — sending signals to allow or stop behaviors.

When the brain detects a red flag, its limbic-hippocampal connections relay a warning from the thalamus to the frontal cortex. That’s the control center of the brain that handles emotional expression and problem solving.

In ADHD brains, the thalamus gate is broken.

That means a person with ADHD may struggle to:

  • Hold back a comment that may hurt someone’s feeling
  • Rein in short-term desires like eating candy or spending money

“People without ADHD have the ability to stop, mid-stream if they recognize a person is not smiling,” says Joel Nigg, Ph.D. “The child with ADHD needs 20-30 milliseconds longer warning [to correct course], which is an eternity when it comes to behavior control.”

In other words, this is not simply rudeness or lack of self-discipline. It is a function of the interior signaling system of the brain.