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Managing Impulsive Behavior: Because Real Life Doesn’t Offer Accommodations

Dealing with frustration and managing ADHD impulsive behavior can make everyday tasks and errands seem overwhelming. A recent trip to the store reminded me about the value of having discipline in stressful situations.

The universe has a great sense of humor. I know this for a fact because of what happened the other day when I went shopping. I had a short list and had planned to be in and out of the store quickly. With the Nerf guns under one arm and the giant bag of Chex Mix under the other, I was anxiously trying to find the quickest-moving checkout line. I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and waiting in line is just not for me. After five minutes of staring at the same magazine covers and packets of gum, I get twitchy. Then I saw it: a line with just one person — score! I swooped into the lane triumphantly. I should have known better.

“Price check!” I heard the cashier yell and felt myself deflating. Still, how long can a price check take? Apparently quite some time, especially when the cashier and the customer can’t tell bok choy from Chinese broccoli. Noticing that the lady in the checkout line next to me — who had been four people away from checking out when I first got in line — was about to finish up, I felt my face getting red, and I started sweating as the pressure of frustration started to build up.

Should I just bail on this lane and go to another one? But I’ve been standing here so long already! No. I’m going to wait it out, I thought. The checkout lady is slow, but the price check has been done and there are just a couple of items left on the belt. Oh no, coupons? Are you kidding me? Wait, what’s this? A buy-one-get-one-free special, and the shopper in front of me forgot to grab the freebie? This is not happening!

At this point, it became clear to me that I must immediately abandon this lane and move to another one if I was to prevent the explosion that was about to take place inside of me, but as I looked around, I saw that every single open register was at least three people deep, most of them with loaded carts.

I took some deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. I’m sure I looked positively murderous, although the checkout lady and the customer in front of me both seemed oblivious to my tortured state. Impossibly so, it seems they hadn’t noticed me back there, swaying and muttering darkly under my breath. I was so close to flipping out, I could taste it.

[Real-World Strategies: “How I Stop Being So Impulsive”]

Then, it happened. Price check. Mystery vegetable. Coupons. What came next? If you guessed, “The lady pulled out a large bag of quarters,” you are absolutely correct. For a second, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Then, because I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. I’m sure everyone around me thought that I was completely insane, but it was a much-needed release of all that pent-up pressure, and I’m glad that I was able to blow it off by laughing like a maniac.

As I drove home with my loot, I knew I must have made quite the sight, standing there, huffing and puffing in frustration, as all the clichés of waiting in line came to life right before my eyes. And yet, as frustrating as it was for my ADHD body to stand in line and wait, I also knew that the experience was good for me to work on my self-control and not give in to the impulse to do something silly like yell at the cashier or the customer in front of me. Giving in to my anger and frustration would have been a relief, but at the end of it all, what would I have gained?

Teachers and parents have undoubtedly witnessed the frustration and struggles that students with ADHD have with common everyday tasks and situations. While it’s good to extend special understanding and accommodations those who need it, I’ve also come to believe strongly that no accommodation can ever replace the consistent, mindful practice of good old-fashioned self-control. While schools and colleges can offer accommodations for students with special needs, real life won’t. I wish that my local all-in-one store was planning on putting in special extra-speedy ADHD-friendly checkouts, but somehow I just don’t think that will happen.

As you consider the impatient students and kids (and maybe even adults) in your life and as you show them compassion and understanding, remember to balance that with challenging them to learn how to be mindful of their own impulses. Impulse control is something that everyone should be working on but especially those of us with ADHD.

How to help students with impulse issues practice self-control? Help them use their words. Start by teaching them how to recognize and verbalize the levels of their frustration before their upset feelings escalate to an outburst. There is always a beginning, a middle, and an ending resolution — positive or negative — to feelings of anger. If students can be taught to recognize their place in the cycle, they can become better equipped to seek help before an explosion occurs. Teaching a student to be able to say to herself, “I am getting really frustrated right now. I need to stop and walk away from this and cool off or get help,” is a skill that will serve her well the rest of her life.

[Take This Test: Emotional Hyperarousal]

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