Healthy Coping Skills: Managing Impulsivity in Teens

Increased impulsivity in teens is associated with a higher risk of substance abuse, unprotected sex, and legal problems, however it doesn’t start that way. Impulsivity refers to a tendency to act without thinking and can involve behaviors that are risky, inappropriate, or poorly thought out. This is common in middle schoolers who have not developed metacognitive skills, ability to self-regulate, or healthy coping skills. Middle schoolers going through puberty are prone to mood swings and hormonal shifts that trigger impulses. They lack the decision-making abilities to understand the consequences of their actions. While the prevalence of impulsivity in teens is partially developmental, teens can learn healthy coping skills to deal with their emotions that will help them make positive choices for themselves and their relationships.

Acting on Impulse

While impulsivity is often used to refer to behaviors like spending and last-minute decision-making, impulsivity can be a symptom of mental disorders. Impulsivity is associated with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiance, Anxiety and Depression. Someone who is struggling with low mood, concentration, and restless energy is more likely to act impulsively or struggle with impulse control. Impulsive choices for teenagers are also influenced by social learning and peer pressure. Teenagers struggle with planning ahead and recognizing what their personal goals are. It is difficult to understand the intentions behind their actions, as they are motivated by instant gratification.

Everyone makes questionable decisions at times, however continued impulsive decisions can become harmful when they affect relationships, self-esteem, school performance, and one’s internal locus of control. Impulses are not always risky behaviors. Some examples include talking excessively, changing topics frequently, interrupting others, obsessive behavior, dramatic emotional responses, mood swings, lying, stealing, aggressive behavior, and irritability.

Encouraging Positive Choices When Impulses Arise

  • Be direct about your expectations for behavior. Expectations do not have to result in physical rewards or punishments, but rather building trust, intimacy, and responsibility. Talk to them with the respect you would have for someone more mature but use language they can understand and relate to.  Middle schoolers are transitioning from the carefreeness of childhood to wanting to have the independence of adulthood, although they haven’t learned the skills that will help them with that transition.
  • Role model positive choices. Girls are especially impressionable during this period of their lives. They learn most from people around them and look up to older teenagers and adults as role models. Control your own emotions when their negative choices cause family conflict. Encourage safety, healthy relationships, and self-care.
  • Be clear about boundaries. Emphasize the power of staying in relationships with other people. Do not let them take advantage of the trust and freedom you want for them. Show them the same respect you expect from them.
  • Allow them to take risks. Do not restrict their ability to explore what works and doesn’t work for them. Find a balance between being permissive and authoritarian. Let them fight their own battles and come to you for advice.
  • Explain potential consequences of actions. Middle schoolers struggle with looking at long-term effects of behavior and realizing how their behavior affects the people around them
  • Validate their emotional experiences. Allow yourself to be vulnerable about your own experiences to reassure them that the stress they are facing is normal. Mention ways impulsivity and decision making still affects your life. Middle schoolers tend to be egocentric and struggle to understand that their experiences are not unique.
  • Encourage more control in their lives. Give them options to make their own decisions that are less open ended. When teens are given room to make decisions, they feel more responsible and trusted. Following routines of things they like to do can help them feel organized and self-sufficient without it feeling like you’ve created that structure for them.
  • Encourage self-sufficiency. Teach them independent living skills early, such as meal preparation, cleaning their room, and self-care.

Asheville Academy can help

Asheville Academy is an accredited Therapeutic Boarding School for girls 10-14 that encourages healthy coping skills and impulse control. Our students commonly struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning differences, attachment and other emotional and behavioral issues. This program is focused on emotion regulation and building the confidence, communication skills, and social skills that will help students regain a sense of self-control. We can help your family today!