Adolescence can be a challenging time for both young people and their parents. Adolescents often face temptations to experiment with various substances and, unfortunately, this is the time when problem substance use typically begins. Vulnerability likely stems from at least two changes that occur during adolescence: although there are rapid increases in sensation seeking during early- to mid-adolescence, gradual improvements in impulse control become evident only during later adolescence. This study examines how these processes develop in high-risk youths.
Researchers looked at 305 youths (153 girls, 152 boys) who were considered high-risk for behavioral problems due to having fathers with a history of alcohol- or other drug-use disorders. Their trajectories of self-reported impulsivity and sensation seeking were compared with 81 youths (46 girls, 35 boys) with no family histories of substance-use disorders. Assessments started at ages 10-12, and continued for up to 42 months. Also, a subset of 58 youths considered high risk who began using substances before age 15 were compared with 58 youths considered high risk who did not initiate substance use before age 15.
High-risk youths had greater impulsivity, which may make them less able to regulate sensation-seeking drives that lead to problem alcohol and other drug use. Additionally, high-risk youths who initiated early drug use also had greater increases in sensation seeking across adolescence than high-risk youths who were not drug users, which may contribute to more problem substance use. In short, in youths with a family history of substance use disorders, the combination of greater impulsivity with adolescent sensation seeking may be an important underlying component of the risk associated with a family history of a substance use disorder. In these individuals, early substance use, which further increases impulsivity, is an additional contributor to the risk of developing a substance-use disorder.
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