I Love My Kid With ADHD, But His Poor Impulse Control Is Killing Me

by Laura Russin
Originally Published: 
A blond kid with ADHD on a swing upside down
Annie Otzen/Getty

I’m sitting at my desk at work, knee deep in charting. I hear the phone inside my desk drawer ring, and I ignore it, too busy to deal with whatever it is. Moments later it rings again. I hear the impatience in the tune it spits out and I can’t disregard it anymore. I close my chart and open the drawer, glancing down at the screen I see it’s the babysitter. I have three missed calls from her.

My heart pounds. It’s an emergency!

I call her back, and she assures me immediately that the kids are fine… however, it seems that Man has stuck some metal into a socket and blown a fuse, the kitchen has no power.

This is the third time that he has done this in the last year, so I know exactly how to walk her through fixing it.

I push the fear from my mind and the aggravation sets in — will he ever learn that that is dangerous? Will he hurt himself, or someone else the next time he does it? For there is always a next time.

We’ve all seen THAT kid and THAT mom. You know the dynamic duo.

The kid who is standing in the shopping cart, arms out, pretending to fly, as his sibling runs him down supermarket aisles. His mother running after them, yelling angrily, embarrassed, and worried about concussions and broken bones.

The kid who is hiding in the clothing racks at Target, playing hide and seek. His mother, frantically searching for him, frustrated, impatient, worried about a possible kidnapping.

The kid who just picked up that huge rock on the playground and tossed it across the field, oblivious to the 10 kids it almost hit in the head, as it arcs nicely, landing on the ground with a loud thud. His mother, shamed, desperately apologizing to other parents, worried that the other children will not want to play with him anymore.

For this child knows not what he does, and this mother understands that — and it worries the SHIT out of her.

Impulse control.

It’s something that develops over time as the brain grows and classic conditioning does its job. When we stick metal in a socket, and it shocks us. The next time the thought occurs to us try it again, we are quickly reminded of the pain that seared through our hand and the screams it elicited from our mom the last time tried that. We decide not to do it again. Simple.

This does not happen for the child with ADHD.

These are not magical children who didn’t get shocked. They do — and that shock hurt them just as much a their neurotypical pal who tried it also. No, it’s that they don’t stop long enough to think of the consequences of the last time they performed such an action.

In other words, conditioning does not work as well with this population. They have an idea and immediately act upon it. The mechanism of the brain that says, “Dude, the last time you did that you got hurt, blew a fuse, AND your mom got pissed!!!” is completely absent.

In our house, this is the most challenging aspect of the ADHD diagnosis.

It’s easy to see how a lack of impulse control affects behaviors. If your child never stops to think of the consequences of their actions, that can lead to some pretty out-of-control behaviors.

But subtler, and more challenging to understand, are the ways it permeates EVERY ASPECT of functioning for this child and their family.

Without impulse control, independent functioning becomes almost impossible. At three years of age, this is expected, but by seven, eight, thirteen years of age, it’s unconscionable and exhausting for parents.

It effects activities of daily living:

Yes, we have all had to remind our kids a few times to put on their shoes or brush their teeth in the morning. However, eventually they get it. Sure, they might need an extra, gentle, reminder or two (or several) on days when they are not completely on their game. But, all in all, by a certain age, your child can dress and bathe themselves somewhat to completely independently depending on age.

This does not happen for a child who lacks impulse control. The verbal reminder is given, but suddenly, a bird is flying by the window and it’s cool and it’s red! The sweat shirt is dropped, the child gleefully runs to the window and enjoys his birdwatching for like 20 seconds. But then, something else of interest catches his eye! The sweatshirt remains crumpled on the floor — a complete afterthought — until Mom notices that her kid is wandering around the house naked, hyper-focused on peeling the wrapper off of a crayon he found under the couch. She calls out, “Go get dressed!” However, he has dropped the crayon and become engrossed in tapping the spoon to his morning serial on the counter — he’s jamming! He is oblivious to her words.

RELATED: How To Get Crayon Off Walls And A Bunch Of Other Stuff — Because, Kids

This happens, every morning. EVERY. MORNING. Until mom just gives up and sits next to her child, a child that is waaaaay too old for this, and dresses him herself.

It effects school:

Oh, how it affects school. Do I even need to elaborate on this one?

It affects learning in such a substantial and significant way that it’s almost too much for me to wrap my head around. I think people often think that ADHD just means a kid “can’t sit still.” Yea, you know why? Lack of impulse control.

Paying attention in class, completing assignments, participating appropriately, prioritizing and organizing work, simply walking down the hall to gym class — it’s ALL affected.

It affects relationships:

God, does it affect relationships with both family and friends.

This post is born from the shame I have felt lately because I have been extra short with Man.

As his mom, I am tired. Tired of having to help him with everything.

I’m anxious. Anxious that he will never improve.

I’m fearful. Fearful that I don’t have it within me to be the understanding and calm parent he needs all the time. Fearful that I am just losing my patience. Fearful of how much more I’m yelling lately.

I’m reminded. Reminded constantly that it all out of his control, he’s not doing this on purpose. Sometimes I think it would be easier to handle if he were, at least then my anger would be justified.

It effects friendships, relationships with siblings and other family members, teachers, and random strangers on the street.

It effects one’s ability to live up to their true potential:

Mastery comes from the ability to practice and dedicate yourself to a specific task. However, without impulse control, your ability to commit the amount of time needed to achieve mastery is impossible. It means that no matter how gifted you are, or how interested you are in something, you might never truly achieve excellence. It’s as though you are trying your best, but your best just got up and walked away to do something else.

This deeply saddens me for Man, as he is so brilliant and so interested, yet, so far, he can only produce middle-of-the road success with everything he tries.

The hardest part, the most challenging and frustrating part, is that none of this is their fault, it’s how they were born. They, more than anyone else, are significantly more frustrated with the lack of control they have over their brain. They simply cannot make it work in the desired way and this leads to daily exasperation and regular disappointments. It’s this reason that forces me to push my own irritation aside, gather my strength, wrap my arms around Man, and be his scaffolding until he doesn’t need it anymore.

This article was originally published on