Impulse Control

06 Apr, 2015
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Can Mindfulness Curb Impulsivity in Adolescents and Teens?

Written by Valerie-York Zimmerman

In an issue of Mindful Magazine (1), Gina Biegel, author of The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens and the CD, Mindfulness for Teens writes about Clayton Carlson, a 23-year-old youth who on July 7th, 2011, in a moment of impulsivity, made the irreversible decision to act on his suicide thoughts by laying on a local train track in Palo Alto, California. Ms. Biegel goes on to point out that other kids, in order to cope with the demands placed on them as students and adolescents, end up resorting to less devastating but still harmful coping mechanisms such as cutting, illegal and legal drug use, sleep deprivation, binge drinking, etc. This sometimes appears to be the norm and not the exception.


“No wonder why teens have a hard time without stimulation and with silence: they rarely get any. Then it starts all over again, Groundhog Day, a life of racing to get somewhere—the next class, the next practice, the next thing to accomplish and put on one’s college application.  And at what cost? Are we teaching the youth of today the race to never being happy and at peace with who they are, as they are? When it comes to stressed students, schools and parents often acknowledge that there is a problem. But few take action to change things.  It could be your son or daughter or your high school student that we’re talking about here. This problem knows no boundaries and nostereotypes.”

George Mumford, an African American sports psychologist perhaps best known for being the mindfulness teacher hired by basketball Coach Phil Jackson in 1993 to train the Chicago Bulls and in 1999 the L.A. Lakers, said in an interview he thought impulse control is the main benefit of meditation practice on inner-city lives. He went on to explain, “The inner city is a pressure cooker full of tension and anxiety.  It’s easy to go off or to reach for something to ease the pain.  Meditation helps people understand the operation of minds and emotions.  It teaches us how to detach from outside provocation and from our habitual patterns of reaction.” (2)

As defined by the International Society for Research on Impulsivity, impulsivity is a “behavior without adequate thought, the tendency to act with less forethought than do most individuals of equal ability and knowledge, or a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions. Impulsivity is implicated in a number of psychiatric disorders including Mania, Personality Disorders, and Substance Use Disorders”.

Besides being implicated with the above-mentioned disorders, impulsivity also plays an important role in other maladaptive behaviors and addictions such as gambling, eating disorders, risk taking behaviors, etc. Several studies have demonstrated how the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain directly associated with impulse control, delaying of gratification, inhibiting inappropriate behavior and initiating appropriate behavior does not fully mature on average till the age of 25 (3).

This of course helps to explain some of the seemingly unsound risk taking behavior that sometimes adolescents engage in. In addition, research on children diagnosed with ADHD shows that they find it more challenging than others to control their behavior. (4). In a recent study of adolescents with ADHD, mindfulness training was shown to significantly reduce symptoms associated with the disorder (5). Some studies are also beginning to provide some indication that mindfulness training can improve the regulation of limbic system responses in the brain, particularly those dealing with emotional content. (6) Other findings dealing with mindfulness and impulsivity show that mindfulness may aid to control impulsive responses and suggest mindfulness may prove to be an effective approach to regulate our responses. (7).

In the Journal of Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, an article titled Mindfulness in the Treatment of Suicidal Individuals (8), the authors conclude that “although more research is needed, mindfulness appears to offer promise for those people contemplating suicide as a method to end their suffering. Encouraging preliminary evidence suggests that therapists can foster mindfulness in a relatively brief period of time and that mindfulness can affect a variety of processes thought to contribute to suicidal behavior. Through mindfulness, suicidal individuals are taught to observe the dark calculus of suicide with equanimity, cultivate kindness and self-compassion toward themselves, and to return to living each moment to its fullest.


  • Biegel, Gina. “Teens, Stress & Suicide.” Mindful Magazine Sept. 2011.
  • Butler, Katy.  “Eye on the Ball.”  Tricycle. Summer, 2003.
  • (2012)  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (3) , pp. 291-299.
  • 2012 Jan 5;19(2):265-276. Epub 2011 Apr 15
  • Casey BJ, Jones RM, Hare TA. The Adolescent Brain. Ann NY Acad Sci 1124: 111-126. 2008
  • Schachar, R.J., Tannock, R., & Logan, G. (1993). Inhibitory control, impulsiveness, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Clinical Psychology Review, 13, 721-740
  • Zylowksa, L., et al. (2008). Mindfulness Meditation Training in Adolescents and Adults with ADHD: A Feasibility Study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11(6), 737-746.
  • Creswell, J.D., Way, B.M., Eisenberger, N.I., & Lieberman, M.D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69:560-5.
  • Papies E.K., Barsalou L.W., Custers R. Mindful attention prevents mindless impulses (2012)  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (3), pp. 291-299
  • Luoma JB, Villate JL. (2012) Mindfulness in the Treatment of Suicidal Individuals. Journal of Cognitive & Behavioral Practice. 2012 Jan 5;19(2):265-276. Epub 2011 Apr 15

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