Study: Targeting Impulsivity Early in Adolescence Could Prevent Later Behavioral Disorders

Research showed that changes in impulsivity during early to mid-adolescence predicted changes in antisocial behavior and alcohol use.

New research has found that tendencies toward impulsivity in early adolescence are connected to a variety of poor outcomes in later adolescence, including antisocial personality disorder (APD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to data from hundreds of Philadelphia youth tracked for more than 6 years.

In past studies, the link between impulsivity and disorders such as APD and AUD were analyzed, but the value of intervention during adolescence was not evaluated. The new findings suggest that targeted support during early adolescence once individuals start to exhibit higher levels of impulsivity may help to stop a cascading chain of events that could lead to APD and AUD in late-adolescence.

“Kids with impulse control problems are at risk for a variety of adverse outcomes, such as drug use, acting-out behavior, and antisocial behavior,” said study co-author Dan Romer, PhD, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, in a press release. “What we’ve found is that you’ve got to start mitigating impulsivity before it starts influencing behaviors that lead to substance use and antisocial behavior disorders. Once adolescents are on a trajectory of engaging in those behaviors, it may become more difficult to prevent disorders later in adolescence than it is to treat impulsivity itself.”

The study is based on data from the Philadelphia Trajectory Study, which included 364 adolescents of diverse ethnic backgrounds. The study was conducted over 6 waves, during which participants between the ages of 10 and 12 years were interviewed annually starting from 2004 to 2010, with a final 2-year follow-up in 2012. The current study relies on 5 years of self-reported data pulled from waves 3 through 6; by the final wave, the participants were between the ages of 18 and 21 years.

During the study, the team found that from early to mid-adolescence, changes in impulsivity predicted changes in antisocial behavior and alcohol use. However, by the time the participants have reached mid- to late-adolescence, changes in impulsivity were no longer predicting those behaviors.

“It is also important to target antisocial behavior to interrupt the cascade that predicts both [AUD] and [APD],” lead study author Ivy Defoe, an assistant professor of social and behavioural sciences at the University of Amsterdam, said in the press release. “In fact, the study showed that increases in antisocial behavior in mid- to late-adolescence further predicted increases in impulsivity as well. This is consistent with labeling theory that suggests that individuals who show antisocial behavior are subsequently labeled as ‘antisocial’ or ‘rule-breakers,’ which causes them to further exhibit attributes that are associated with such behavior.”

The investigators noted that potential interventions for individuals exhibiting high levels of impulsivity in early adolescence is by alerting parents about the potential risks and ways of referring their children for treatment.

“Intervening early is critical to further avoid the consequences of impulsivity which are more difficult to reverse once psychopathology has developed,” said the research team in the press release. They added that such interventions could include mindfulness training and family-based interventions in which parents and caregivers work to help their child overcome harmful impulsive tendencies.

Significantly, the investigators also noted that the data showed that socioeconomic status was a significant predictor of impulsivity at each wave of the study.

“Future research could further investigate the mechanisms by which early exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage influences heightened impulsivity during adolescence, including impacts on child executive functioning and parenting behaviors,” the researchers said in the press release.

Reference

Targeting Impulsivity Early in Adolescence Could Prevent Later Behavioral Disorders. Annenberg Public Policy Center University of Pennsylvania. August 8, 2022. Accessed August 16, 2022. https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/targeting-impulsivity-early-in-adolescence-could-prevent-later-behavioral-disorders/

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