Can being an impulsive early adolescent be a slippery slope leading to more serious problems in the later teenage years? A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health explores the relationships between impulsivity, antisocial behavior, and alcohol use through different stages of adolescence and emerging adulthood.
The teen years are formative and full of rapid changes. While this comes with exciting, endless possibilities, it could also lead to a myriad of negative outcomes that could affect the trajectory of an individual’s future. Impulsivity in early adolescents may seem inconsequential, but it can be predictive of impulsivity in late adolescence and adulthood, which can have serious and adverse outcomes, as children gain access to more independence and risk.
Impulsivity has been linked to alcohol abuse and antisocial tendencies, which can in turn become antisocial personality disorder and alcohol use disorder in adulthood. This study sought to explore the potential cascade of impulsivity, antisocial behaviors, and alcohol use over time among adolescents.
For their study, Ivy N. Defoe and colleagues utilized 364 adolescents recruited from schools and other local venues in Philadelphia. Data was collected in 6 waves, of which this study used data from 4. The mean age of participants at the first wave utilized was 13.5, and at the last wave ages ranged from 18 to 21.
Researchers defined wave 1 as early adolescence, waves 2 and 3 as mid adolescence, and wave 4 as late adolescence for the purpose of this study. Participants were a diverse mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and predominantly were low-middle class. At each wave, participants completed measures on impulsivity, alcohol use, and antisocial behavior.
Results showed that early adolescent impulsivity was linked to mid adolescent antisocial behavior and alcohol use. This was not seen for late adolescence, which is consistent with previous research suggesting that impulsivity becomes less indicative of behavioral issues in late adolescence.
A reverse relationship emerged from mid to late adolescence, where antisocial behavior influenced self-perceived impulsivity, rather than the other way around. Interestingly, antisocial behavior in mid adolescence predicted higher alcohol use into late adolescence and emerging adulthood, while impulsivity did not. These results show antisocial behavior as not only a possible outcome of impulsivity, but as an indicator for alcohol use.
“It is also important to target antisocial behavior to interrupt the cascade that predicts both alcohol use disorder and antisocial personality disorder,” said Defoe in a news 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.”
Socioeconomic status significantly predicted impulsivity at each wave. Though this was controlled for in this study, it is a very important result, as it shows low socioeconomic adolescence as being at higher risk.
This study took important steps into better understanding the relationships and mediating effects of antisocial behavior, impulsivity, and alcohol use. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that impulsivity is the only social factor used as a predictor in this study; future research could explore other predictors as well. Additionally, alcohol use criteria and antisocial personality criteria were based on a questionnaire rather than a diagnosis from a trained individual, which could make them less reliable.
The study, “Cascades From Early Adolescent Impulsivity to Late Adolescent Antisocial Personality Disorder and Alcohol Use Disorder“, was authored by Ivy N. Defoe, Atika Khurana, Laura M. Betancourt, Hallam Hurt, and Daniel Romer.