Targeting impulsivity early in adolescence could prevent later behavioral disorders

Tendencies toward impulsivity in early adolescence are linked with a variety of poor outcomes in later adolescence. By mid-adolescence, it may be too late to target impulsivity to prevent those developments.

Past research has shown the link between impulsivity and these disorders, but not how it unfolds. Now, a new study based on data tracking hundreds of Philadelphia youth over more than a half-dozen years details the complex pathway connecting impulsivity, alcohol use, and antisocial behavior.

Ivy DaFoe and Dan Romer.
Lead author Ivy Defoe is a former postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center; Dan Romer, co-author, is the research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The findings suggest that targeting adolescents who exhibit high levels of impulsivity in early adolescence could halt a cascading chain of events that leads to late-adolescence antisocial personality disorder (APD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD).

“Kids with impulse control problems are at risk for a variety of adverse outcomes, such as drug use, acting-out behavior, and antisocial behavior,” says study co-author Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “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 open-access study, titled “Cascades From Early Adolescent Impulsivity to Late Adolescent Antisocial Personality Disorder and Alcohol Use Disorder” and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, was conducted by researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), University of Amsterdam, University of Oregon, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The researchers found that from early to mid-adolescence, changes in impulsivity predicted changes in antisocial behavior and alcohol use. But by the time the participants had reached mid- to late adolescence, changes in impulsivity no longer predicted those behaviors. Instead, it was engaging in antisocial behavior that predicted subsequent symptoms of both alcohol use and antisocial personality disorders.

“It is also important to target antisocial behavior to interrupt the cascade that predicts both alcohol use disorder and antisocial personality disorder,” says the lead author, Ivy Defoe, an assistant professor of social and behavioural sciences at the University of Amsterdam and a former postdoctoral fellow at the APPC. “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.”

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.