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Impulsive Behavior in Teens

author image Amber Keefer
Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.
Impulsive Behavior in Teens
Poor impulse control can lead to teen drug and alcohol abuse. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images

While it’s common for adolescents and teens to act on impulse rather than thinking their actions out beforehand, extreme impulsiveness is a risk factor for aggressive or violent behavior, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Because a teenager’s brain is still developing, the cognitive abilities of judgment, reasoning and emotions are immature and can affect the way a teen behaves.

Drugs and Alcohol

Drugs and alcohol can delay a young teen’s brain development and emotional growth. Teens who abuse alcohol may also have less self-control. Consequently, drinking too much alcohol can lead to taking part in more risky behaviors. Although more research is needed, the findings of a study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University suggests teens who are moderately impulsive to begin with are more likely to act even more impulsively after drinking heavily. Helene R. White, the study’s lead researcher, explains that heavy drinking reduces impulse control, which may actually lead to more drinking. Results of the study were published in the February 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Experimental and Clinical Research.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Although most teens can be moody and impulsive at times, the behaviors of a teen with borderline personality disorder are more extreme and ongoing. Teens who have BPD are poor at managing their emotions, which can lead to reckless and irresponsible behaviors such as abusing alcohol and drugs and sexual promiscuity. In an interview for the New York Times, Dr. Alec L. Miller, a licensed psychologist and professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY, points out that learning emotional coping skills can help a teen with BPD control both their emotions and behaviors.


Teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are more impulsive and therefore often show poor judgment. This can lead them to taking reckless risks, especially if they already have low self-esteem. In an article for WebMD, Harold Robert Meyer, executive director of the ADD Resource Center in New York, explains that pulling off a high-risk feat that others aren’t willing to try may give a teen with a poor self-image a feeling of being better than someone else. Since teens normally listen to what their friends say, healthy peer friendships can act as a positive influence on their behavior by encouraging them to settle down and take fewer risks.

Low Serotonin Levels

A scientific review published in the October 2008 issue of the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior reports that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin may predispose teens to impulsive aggression that leads to disturbing or violent behaviors. Studies also link imbalances in the serotonin and dopamine systems with poor impulse control and substance abuse. Increasing serotonin and decreasing dopamine activity in the brain can help reduce impulsive aggression characterized by destructive behaviors.

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